14c. Myerscough College

Motivating Learners with Creative Writing

Myerscough College

This project was designed to motivate learners at our land-based FE college to have an enjoyment of English through using creative writing. Through a series of activities, workshops and competitions, learners were enthused into the subject.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Learners who attend our college attend with the intention of following their passion or chosen career subject and see English (and maths) resits as an unwanted addition. Work is needed to change this perception and to inspire learners in order to find an enjoyment of the subject instead. ‘Teaching English and maths in FE: what works for vocational learners?’ (Allen, 2017) highlights the need for a motivational aspect in teaching English, relating to learners’ skills and interests and building on these. The project’s intention was to spark an interest in learners, through the use of creative writing tasks, a means of expression that has previously been seen as the most ‘fun’ part of English, by giving learners the opportunity for their work to be published and incentivising participation in creative writing workshops as well as other plans, such as inviting a famous poet to speak with learners at the college, integrating creative writing into every English session in starter activities and displaying poetry related to their subjects in their vocational area.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. It took place in the English department as well as cross-college, including the Out Centre in Liverpool. A number of the English teachers had some involvement, attending workshops and using resources from the project, and some were heavily involved in the project; running creative writing activities and reflecting on the outcomes regularly. The case studies focus on Functional Skills (FS) and GCSE learners who worked in the library in dedicated creative writing workshops held by external creative writing degree learners. This activity was designed to explore the impact on motivation. Learners in the project range from 14-16 school learners who attend for GCSE and FS English one day per week, and 16+ learners who are undertaking GCSE or FS as a resit following school. FS Levels are from Entry Level 2 to Level 1 inclusive, and these learners would not normally undertake creative writing as part of the course. The impact of these activities is also explored in the case studies.


The project took several angles. The first was to use creative writing starter activities in English sessions and explore the impact on learners. This was done using a variety of methods including post-it notes, a simple two question survey, speaking with learners and poll everywhere responses. This aspect of the project helped us to gain an insight into whether creative writing would be an effective method of engagement for learners across college. The starter activities ran from the very start of the year in September and are still running now most weeks. The aim of using these starter activities was to engage learners from the start of the session by allowing them to express their creativity and see these activities as fun and engaging introductions to English lessons.

The second aspect was introducing a motivational external speaker to run workshops for both staff and learners. This was poet Dr Mike Garry, who ran two learner workshops in the library in which he spoke about the impact reading has had on his life, how it can change yours and introduced some poetry to learners. The day with this poet was a success, with over 40 learners attending the workshops and 5 members of staff at the staff session. The learners were from the animal care provision and were brought to the sessions by their animal care lecturer. The lecturer was impressed, involved and reflected after the session that it had inspired her in her creative writing passion. In the animal care provision since this day the learners have participated in animal related poetry days and are focusing on their writing skills. We collected learner feedback on this which we have included in the appendices. Learners felt positive after these sessions and we witnessed disengaged learners actually check out library books following the session as a result. The staff workshop Dr Garry ran in the afternoon was attended by 5 members of staff, from Foundation Learning, the English Department and from the Quality Department. This was also recorded to be shared with the wider college. The feedback from this session was also good, and Dr Garry spoke about finding a passion for English and sharing this with learners. He gave practical advice and tools to use, which the English team have since implemented.

The third aspect was the creative writing workshops run by University College Lancashire (UCLan) learners in the library for a six-week programme. This gave learners from FS and GCSE programmes the opportunity to work with external practitioners and to explore the possibilities creative writing can give. A total of 25 learners attended these sessions; they worked on poetry writing and really had the time to focus on their writing styles. Each week the learners worked on a prepared mini lesson/session on different aspects of creative writing, from planning to editing. This also led to the opportunity of having work published in an anthology of works about Myerscough college. This opportunity was open to both staff and learners to help create a buzz around writing at the college and was advertised as a writing competition for all to be involved.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

There are several impacts to consider here. The overall ‘mission’ of the project was to improve motivation and passion for English through using creative writing, and so to evaluate the impact of this we must consider each aspect of the project and the impact of each.

Impact of creative writing starter activities

At the start of the year, we asked learners, as a starter activity, to write a word that comes to mind when they hear the word ‘reading’. Of these words, 50% of these were negative – (please refer to Appendix 4 for examples of the words shared). We have since done the same activity and the positive words have increased to 75%.
Discussing each activity with learners afterwards, asking them to reflect on how it made them feel and giving that space for learners to really think about the impact the starter activity had on their thought processes was impactful. This project allowed focus on this part of the lesson whereas usually it would be simply to engage learners as they arrive. It triggered the intention to really give time and reflection space to starter activities for both the teacher and the learners. After the Haiku poetry starter which uses 5-7-5 syllables in a 3 line poem for example, learners felt in some ways exposed, and it was important that we reflected on this and discussed it so that they could feel comfortable being creative in future. We have included a breakdown of the feedback from the haiku starter in the appendices.

Impact of poet

Dr Mike Garry definitely left a lasting impression on both staff and learners. Learners actively checked out books from the library after the workshop and were discussing the workshop animatedly. We ran a feedback survey with one of the groups and the results from this are included in the appendices. Having an external speaker (especially one so passionate) was a real talking point for both staff and learners, and allowed thoughts to focus on English, and discussing reading and creative writing.

Impact of workshops

Learners who have attended the workshops have produced poetry and written pieces of a high standard, and, when asked, have said that they have really enjoyed the sessions. All learners who attended the workshops will be entering the writing competition, as they were working on their piece whilst in the workshops. This has also created links between the English department at Myerscough and the local University Creative Writing Department, which we will continue to develop, and we will potentially run this style of project again next year. This could be an ongoing relationship, as it is supporting the degree learners with their project and is giving learners on our FS and GCSE programmes the opportunity to see writing as a potential career and to find enjoyment in writing.

Impact of anthology

The writing competition has had a huge impact on the college, one of the biggest from this project, to the point that in the staff room in the Quality Department, we found out that three members of the team have been published in the past. This discussion and the ‘buzz’ about writing at college is such an unexpected outcome of the project- unexpected, yet, perhaps predictable. We had predicted that we may be able to get this to happen, but it is unexpected just how much conversation is circulating around it and how many people have actively been involved in the competition (not necessarily by entering it). We have been bold with our interactions and advertising of the competition and have given senior leaders at the college entry forms, encouraging them to take part. A governor of the college was given one by the Director of Teaching and Learning and has entered a piece into the competition.

As part of the project was around the use of starter activities, we created a bank of creative writing starter activities which other team members have utilised and added to. This has allowed for discussion and standardisation of teaching approaches. One of the direct participants in the project works at one of our other campuses and is someone who we at the main campus have not collaborated with very much in the past due to distance. As a result of a lot of online learning/networking due to COVID-19 this collaboration has increased in recent years but has now increased much more due to us working on this project together.

As mentioned in the impact of Dr Mike Garry’s workshops section, an animal care lecturer who attended the workshop was intrigued and asked for support in developing their experience and confidence in using creative writing skills in their area. We were able to put her in touch with another member of staff from the same department who had been encouraging her learners to write poems about animals to express themselves. Again, this discussion and outcome would probably not have arisen if it was not for the project.

Organisational Development

Working with Darren at Croxteth was a development of our communication across centres. Although in the past we have shared resources, the project allowed us to work together much more closely and develop our working relationship which we will continue after the project. It helped us to realise that work is being doubled by us not collaborating more regularly. Using Teams has become much more normal since the Covid-19 pandemic began, and this has allowed for an easier communication between centres, which is important to continue. The bank of starter activity resources is something we will continue to develop and is an organisational change as a result of the project.

Building a working relationship with UCLan has also been a positive outcome, which we will continue to use and develop. The university learners there have been thrilled with the opportunity to develop their practice and they had a positive impact on learners at our college. Discussions have arisen about future collaboration which we will follow up on.

Working with the animal care provision at Preston campus has also been a development, in which the teachers there have been promoting English and creative writing with their learners, particularly after the Mike Garry session in which they felt enthused into previous passions with writing and creativity and they said it reminded them of their own personal love of reading, which they wanted to share with their learners.

Learning from this project

If we were to complete this project again, we would be inclined to focus more heavily on just one element. As we are so passionate about creative writing and English, we found it a bit too easy to get carried away into the several strands of the project. Our intention was to create a buzz about creative writing in the College, which we do feel we achieved, but we do think there were quite a lot of activities involved and so reflection for each has not been as thorough as it would have been if there was one key focus. We have chosen to focus our reflection mainly on the starter activities and the creative writing workshops, for which we completed case studies and clear reflection activities, but, for example, when considering the workshop with Dr Mike Garry, we could have done a lot more reflection and consideration of impact of this if we had fewer activities to focus our attention on.

We would have also been able to advertise the day with Mike Garry more thoroughly, while it was successful in some respects (mainly with learners) it was not very well attended by staff, and this could have been organised on a CPD day, so that more people could have attended. We were restricted by the speaker’s calendar here too, of course.

The aspect we feel has been the most successful is the creative writing workshops and the writing competition, because this has had the greatest reach in terms of participants. We have been able to advertise this through our marketing department and it has been shared with all colleagues across all sites through our newsletter.

We feel with fewer activities, this project would be easier to replicate across other organisations and the key focus would be to run a competition with writing as the central aspect, and to develop a bank of starter activities based on creative writing and focus on the impact and reflections from learners in terms of motivation and engagement in activities.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners.

    We have built positive and collaborative relationships through the use of and collaboration on starter activities, with Croxteth Centre staff in particular. We have also built a new relationship between our General Education Department at Myerscough and the Creative Writing Department at UCLan, which we will continue after the project. In addition, we have built a working relationship with Dr Mike Garry, who has suggested that he would like to return and do further work with our learners; we now liaise on Twitter with different educational ideas. We feel that the time given to reflection and to focus on feelings with creative writing in terms of approach and motivation has helped learners to feel valued. It has also helped with the building of positive relationships between teachers and learners.

  • 9. Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment drawing on research and other evidence.

    In this project we applied techniques from Allen (2017), including ensuring that praise is given, focusing on motivating learners and also focusing on strengths as a base. This has been applied through the creative writing starter activities and also through the creative writing workshops. The book and its contents have been discussed and shared with project participants.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    The rationale for the whole project was to increase the motivation of learners, and to inspire them through the use of engaging creative writing activities. As these activities have been successful we would say this Professional Standard is one of the most vital for the project and that the impact on learners has been obvious. For example, through learner participation in the competition, which shows clear engagement as this is extra-curricular, and the quality of work produced in starter activities and in workshops, which demonstrates the learners’ new skills.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Feedback From One of the Starter Activities (Haiku Writing)

Appendix 4: Screenshot of Initial Feelings About Writing

Appendix 5: Feedback From M Garry Sessions.


Allan, D., (2017). Teaching English and maths in FE: what works for vocational learners? Los Angeles: Learning Matters.

9a. New College Durham

Improving writing for ESOL students stuck at Entry Level 3

New College Durham

This project aimed to help students who were having difficulty progressing from Entry Level 3 (E3) to Level 1 (L1) due to weaker writing skills. We trialled different strategies to develop writing and liaised with Functional Skills (FS) tutors. We learnt having an intense focus on writing skills benefits overall language learning and confidence.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Learners and tutors working togetherWe have a number of students who have plateaued at E3, hindering progress with the language they need in daily life. We sought to find ways to break down this barrier and empower them to be better writers, using a focus on writing systems. Initially, we focussed on how feedback informs writing, but after some interesting reading on a project working with children who struggle to read (Walter, Dockrell and Connelly, 2021) we broadened the scope to consider interventions at text, sentence and word level.

Other Contextual Information

working collaboratively during the projectTwo ESOL tutors carried out research with one ESOL group each: the first was a group of students living in the UK for some time with highly effective verbal communication skills but weaker literacy skills and less accurate grammar (the literacy group); the second was a mixed group of ESOL students with a more EFL profile, many of whom hold professional qualifications from their own countries (mainstream ESOL). We liaised with tutors from the FS English team, and a key outcome from this was being able to recruit a mentor for each group: an adult FS student and a sixth form student.


Here you can see the stages of our action research, as we explored how we can develop our practice in supporting Entry Level 3 students with their writing skills. At each stage of our research, the two ESOL tutors worked closely together, as well as with the FS English team. See Appendices 3b-d for examples of changes to our practice, and examples of student work.

a screenshot of a flowchart showing the approach the project team took

The classes followed different approaches which provided us with opportunities for interesting professional discussion, as well as the chance to learn from each other whilst doing our research. The reason for this difference was to look at a range of strategies. Each tutor chose to do what they felt more comfortable with. This diagram shows the divergence of approach.

flowcharts showing the different process of a approaches the literacy and mainstream ESOL classes took

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Increased focus on writing has borne fruit in following areas:

  • Better writing skills. We found that writing was better planned and more coherent across both groups. There were noticeable improvements in the grammar and spelling of the students in the literacy group as can be seen by the examples below from early on in the course, and the February test.

Start of the year:

example of student writing at the start of the year


example of student writing in February

  • Better understanding and more accurate use of grammar in both spoken and written work (see Appendix 2 and example above)
  • Increased confidence. Students have reported that they feel more confident since starting the course. This manifests itself in them taking the opportunity to speak to other students across college during college events, and seeking out opportunities to communicate with others.
  • Students achieving goals outside college. Two of the students from the literacy class have found employment during the course. One stated that she would not have had the confidence to fill in the application form before starting the course.
  • Improvements in learner performance. It is interesting that both approaches saw improvements in learner performance, although it is not possible to state categorically that one was more successful than the other.

Organisational Development

Organisational developments included:

  • Increased awareness across student body (mentors) of what ESOL is and who the students are.
  • Increased working across departments (ESOL and FS). Staff and students are now more likely to work together.
  • Future training for FS staff from ESOL staff. The curriculum manager for ESOL has been asked to work with FS tutors in the future to better support those working with non-native speakers and the language difficulties they may have.

Learning from this project

We learnt that there are no quick fixes to an entrenched problem such as poor writing skills. At the mid-way point, following progress tests, we were feeling disheartened that we could not see the big gains we had hoped for. But after speaking to the students, we realised that some of the gains were not visible in their writing as such, but those detailed above (confidence, communication, etc).

Following on from that, we learnt to temper our own expectations, and recognise that even small steps forward can represent big gains. The fact that one student felt able to even fill in an application form, a task she had avoided for some time such was her reluctance to write, represents a huge step forward.

We also realised that teaching one skill in isolation is actually not possible. By focussing on writing, we were bringing in more focus on grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc, all of which benefit language skills overall.

Finally, language improvement brings all sorts of benefits with it, including in the ‘soft skills’ of confidence and resilience.

We worked with the FS team and feel we all benefited from it. However, it would have been even better had they not been going through structural change at the same time, and therefore not able to devote as much time as hoped for to the project. Similarly, the stress of persistent and prolonged staff absence due to COVID-19 put a huge strain on the project lead who was not able to spend as much time as planned on the project at certain times.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through enthusiasm and knowledge.

    Our project gave us permission to focus more on writing skills, and by doing so, we were able to break down the barrier of fear that holds so many back from writing regularly. We were able to give students the space they needed to understand what was required of them and to plan thoroughly for the task ahead.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners.

    Our project enabled us to work with colleagues from the FS English team, to draw on their knowledge and share ideas across both teams. It has led to a closer working relationship going forward, where we will be sharing tips on working with non-native speakers.

  • 14. Plan and deliver effective learning programmes for diverse groups or individuals in a safe and inclusive environment.

    We emphasised to students at the start of the year that there were no assumptions about what they knew, and this helped them to go back to the basics of understanding what different parts of speech we have and how they fit together. The students in the literacy class in particular have been so supportive of one another, as they recognise that this is a journey they must all make, even though they have different starting points.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Additional Information and resources

Research Poster

This project also produced a poster for display at the NATECLA National Conference 2022. You can view the poster below and access a PDF copy via the curated exhibition Wakelet.


Walter, K., Dockrell, J., Connelly, V. (2021) A sentence-combining intervention for struggling writers: response to intervention Available at: (Accessed 12th December 2021).

6a: Burton and South Derbyshire College

Exploring digital approaches to reading
and writing

Burton and South Derbyshire College

This project aimed to investigate the validity of new digital approaches deployed in the Learning Resource Centre (LRC), focusing on enhancing digital reading and writing development.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


This research sought to determine the validity, relevance and impact of digital approaches which strive to improve and develop reading engagement and writing for learners within vocational areas. Learner observation indicated that awareness of valuable digital resources such as the e-textbooks could be pivotal to improving learners’ attainment and understanding, as well as enabling greater digital access to our LRC collections and services. Using collaborative digital writing platforms to promote learner confidence in writing was another area of exploration, with the aim to upskill learners’ digital capabilities further and develop confident understanding and use of digital technology for improving levels of literacy.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. The research engaged participants from different departments across our FE College. The first approach was developing reading skills and access to our digital textbooks with a Level 2 Health and Social Care group. Secondly, we explored the improvement of writing using digital approaches with an Entry Level ESOL group and, finally, we worked with vocational learners from across the college to develop their digital reading skills.


The project leader, in collaboration with the Health and Social Care department, identified a suitable group for the study. The Level 2 Health and Social Care group were selected as their tutor recognised a clear need for the learners to become more familiar with their online textbook to increase their awareness of researching online and improve their digital reading habits. A short survey with the learners was conducted to ascertain their current reading habits and approaches to reading as well as exploring their thoughts about reading and wellbeing themes (Appendix 3a). Sessions on reading and accessing digital textbooks were delivered with the group and data was obtained through surveys to capture their thoughts on this initiative.

As part of the College’s Digital Wellness week, the Health and Social Care group also participated in the new Essential Digital Skills programme, which was supported by LRC staff. The new online digital course included content that required significant online reading to be conducted before assessment. Learners were observed and interviewed as they participated in the course.

Module data generated from the programme was gathered to reflect on the pace of reading, specifically if the design of the content was accessible and how the course impacted on teaching, learning and assessment practices and how digital access could be improved.

We also ran a ‘writing camp’ with an Entry Level ESOL group who worked collaboratively (supported by LRC staff and an external organisation Higher Horizons) to write a novel within one week using an online programme. Higher Horizons are an organisation enabling engagement with Higher Education through outreach work. The one-week camp involved the learners planning a novel collaboratively and writing using a digital programme through Google docs, especially adapted so writers could write, edit and collaborate in different chapters to collectively author the novel ‘The Unwelcome Newcomers’ (Cooks, 2022).

Case studies and semi-structured interviews were used to capture learners’ feedback, as well as observation of participants composing and creating the novel. Discussion with tutors, support staff and learners ascertained whether the participants’ confidence levels had improved and provided an opportunity to investigate whether the structure of the week had engaged their interest and encouraged them to develop their writing skills.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The focus on digital reading highlighted the importance of building and maintaining personal reading habits that can be a crucial aspect of success for learners. In the session, the inclusive features of ebooks were explored (Appendix 3b), such as highlighting, audio options and notetaking facilities, allowing learners to extrapolate and engage with text whilst simultaneously utilising digital literacies.

Giving learners directed instructions (Appendix 3c) allowed them to explore the features of these digital texts and they commented upon the usefulness of formulating questions prior to reading the extracts to master their understanding. The intervention clearly indicated that there was scope to develop the reading extracts and perhaps incorporate further sessions with elements of study skills e.g., advanced notetaking techniques whilst reading the text.

Data analysis from the Essential Digital Skills programme (Appendix 3d) indicates interesting results about the demands of reading online. Learners were scanning the information rather than employing detailed reading strategies and engaged more with the interactive elements, such as quizzes, which demonstrates that further integration of these assessment techniques would potentially enhance engagement. Reducing the text for each module and improving the layout of the information would assist with engagement and accessibility (Appendix 3e).

Developing Entry Level ESOL learners’ writing skills using a digital approach demonstrated that the initiative had a positive impact on the selected learners’ writing skills. Learners commented that they found the first day of planning difficult. Interestingly, no digital applications were used at this stage to help them formulate the plot. Once they were writing in the LRC, using computers and the Google docs layout provided more comfort; they mentioned the security of typing and access to tools such as the spellchecker to improve their writing. The digital approach and the interface of the document allowed them to design the text with ease, and, more importantly, it may demonstrate that the thinking process is occurring more naturally through digital practice. The process of drafting, improving, and checking revealed that the digital approach provided learners with the confidence to view themselves seriously as writers.

Organisational Development

More effective communication and working practices have emerged as a result of the supportive collaboration between curriculum and support staff. One tutor commented that several of the learners are now more confident using narrative tenses and are happier to share written stories.

The ESOL tutors also commented on and recognised the positive effect on their learners’ autonomy as a result of working with wider college teams and spaces. The recognition that others in the organisation can support the learner journey gives both learners and teaching staff an enriching dimension and allows learners to feel they are part of a wider learning community. Following the relinquishing of Covid restrictions, learners felt energised using the LRC and breaking away from classrooms. The presence of both groups increased in the LRC, especially during non-timetable periods (breaks and lunchtime) and they were more likely to come and ask for assistance as they became familiar with LRC staff.

Learning from this project

The research has provided insights into the study skills needs of learners; their responses showed that they needed support in being more motivated, developing concentration and remembering. These observations suggest that these topics should become the foundation of future study skills and reading sessions. Many respondents perceived reading as unimportant and the preferred activity was using their phones, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity to develop new sessions to explore the rapidly transforming models of accessing reading materials.

Learner access to relevant digital resources and textbooks has increased and this has had a positive impact on learner achievement through increased usage and assimilation within assignment work, with learners using the interactive tools to highlight, copy and search. Learners commented that using ebooks was:

Very very useful, [a] great aspect on my course.
… really good. I really enjoy my time as it is easy to understand.

These techniques can be further developed with the focus on more active methods such as making notes, taking the key ideas to paraphrase and writing summaries of chapters. We hope that this will lead to learners further developing the skills of analysing and critiquing what they read.

Embedding digital information skills into the curriculum means that LRC staff have upskilled their digital capabilities to deliver new methods of information literacy. This has also highlighted the need to develop a better technology-rich environment with greater mobile devices to enable collaboration.

Some writers found writing fiction challenging as they were used to producing transactional writing as the norm. The majority enjoyed the freedom of this approach and excelled in the chance to explore and apply their creative talents to produce a novel in less than a week and discover the merits of self-publishing (Appendix 3f).

The writing camp showcased the affordances offered by technology to support writing. The framework of the programme nestled within the Google documents allowed the novelists to work through and collaborate on multiple chapters, adding characters, scenes and plot twists with ease. Learners remarked that they preferred the digital approach as they had access to the editing tools to refine their words, improving grammar and spelling as they wrote.
The adoption of digital tools and techniques offers a unique opportunity to extend the reading and writing skills of learners.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technologies and support learners in their use of new technologies

    Our project had the aim and focus of engaging learners as active users of digital technologies to further enhance their reading and writing skills. The technologies such as e-books, Google docs and a bespoke platform were utilised to engage learners at scale to achieve their aims. Through research, we investigated learners’ engagement with these technologies and how they allowed learners agency to become confident users.

  • 20. Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration with others

    The project has supported important strategic developments. One element of the College Skills Promise is to develop learners as Digital Experts. Having knowledge of, and skills in, the latest digital technologies will set learners up for their career in the 21st century workforce. In recognition of this Burton and South Derbyshire College (BSDC) has developed an Essential Digital Skills programme which the LRC team have supported by previewing and checking the content. During the college-wide Digital Wellness week LRC staff supported learners to enrol and participate in the course. Reflecting upon learner engagement will further enhance the quality of the resource as well as collaborating with other colleges who have also started to use the course to develop their learners’ digital skills.

5c. Lincoln College

Mindset Over Mastery

Lincoln College

This project set out to investigate the effect of mindfulness activities on learner mindset and confidence. How important is the ability to remain calm and focused when writing compared to knowledge and skills? Which matters most – mindset or mastery?

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Learners currently face challenges related to their English skills which are preventing them from success in their vocational studies and gaining entry to their preferred next steps, be that employment, HE or Further Education. We wanted to explore the impact of tenacity and resilience on the achievements of learners with entry qualifications of GCSE grade 3 or below; not only as a way of improving grades but with the aim of encouraging learners to feel pride in their efforts and an increased confidence in their English ability, no matter what grade they achieved. A proportion of learners each year attend college following incomplete or non-traditional secondary education and there is an increase in the number of learners who have English as a second language in addition to those who did not achieve their desired grade. All of these learners face particular challenges which we hope will be improved with strategies for confidence and resilience.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. The action research took place in the English department at Newark and Lincoln, initially with a group of learners at each site which then developed to incorporate all 16-19 Study Programme learners. As a team, we met bi-weekly for an hour’s discussion and reflection as well as trialling mindful meditations. This enabled us to exchange ideas and support each other on a regular basis which resulted in increased confidence, engagement and commitment to the project.


  • our team at the college welcome eventThe project started with a general focus on positivity, reminding learners that failing is a part of learning. Our first lesson was writing a letter to our future selves using and encouraging learners to be reflective. We also had a presence at the college welcome event where we started building relationships with learners with fun games.
  • The next step was to trial a short meditation with a group of learners (one in a remote session and one face to face.) We identified what worked well and what didn’t and fed back to the team in our OTLA 8 meetings. We also read the same meditation to staff so they could see how to deliver it and to enable them to experience the possible benefits.
  • Learners in different classes at both Newark and Lincoln sites took part in meditations before writing activities. Some teachers felt more comfortable playing relaxing music instead of a meditation and we asked learners to submit ideas for a mindful music playlist. This was part of a Paper 2, Question 5 assessment on Viewpoint writing. Their a learner from our projectresponses, along with reviews of their favourite songs as well as the play lists were developed into a pamphlet to celebrate students’ work. (Appendix 2)
  • We developed a ‘mindful’ lesson and all the team tried it with their learners. This incorporated a nature walk in the college grounds using the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding approach. Back in the classroom, we gave learners an image to use as a visualisation, asking them to ‘put themselves’ in the picture describing what they could see using the senses. The learners’ work was collated and incorporated into the Association of Colleges Creative ‘LoveOurColleges’ Writing Project which was then turned into a ‘souvenir’ book, created, and designed by media learners. (Appendix 2)
  • We collected feedback from learners using a range of methods. Firstly, with a face-to-face discussion which we recorded and transcribed and secondly with an electronic Microsoft Form with qualitative questions which we shared with all learners. A short video interview was also recorded with learner A (Appendix 3) who found mindfulness to be particularly beneficial and was keen to share her views.

A flowchart documenting our research project approach

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

As a team, we committed to improving our knowledge and awareness of mindfulness through our dedicated time for teaching, learning and assessment (Golden Hour). We used this space to try out meditations, reflect on our research and create resources. It was particularly our team doing some relaxation tasks (yoga)effective for encouraging and supporting the team, especially those teachers who felt less confident to deliver meditations but were happy to contribute in other ways in the form of reading texts in a slower, more mindful way.

Golden Hour also allowed us to share ideas such as the best YouTube videos for music for concentrating. Teachers reported that students responded well to Lofi (a blend of chilled out beats without lyrics) which suits most musical tastes.

Towards the end of the project, the English team took part in a yoga and mindfulness workshop delivered by an external professional which gave us a new crop of ideas such as the importance of re-energising students through movement or by clapping their hands or arms in addition to calming them.

students practicing relaxation tasksEnglish teachers were given a Mindfulness resource kit (Cards Against Anxiety) and we are currently assessing how to use them most effectively in the classroom.

As a team, we realised collectively, that the biggest gains of mindfulness came from using it with writing skills. This led us to link the two ideas using visualisations. We used a carefully chosen image and asked learners to imagine they were in the picture by reading out a set of questions encouraging them to think about what they could, see, hear, feel, taste and touch. Later on, we added sounds and music to enhance their experience further. This had a noticeable impact which became apparent in the mock exams.

It showed that learners have connected with the idea of writing using the senses following the work on visualisations and ‘putting yourself in the picture’. We developed this further to use in our Easter revision sessions called ‘Classtonbury’. The session was delivered in a sensory room with low lights and comfortable seating to induce a mindful atmosphere. We used a picture of a circus to coincide with our festival theme and this changed midway to represent the inside of the tent and at this point we introduced a short burst students practicing relaxation tasksof overwhelming circus music. It was also used within the classroom after Easter for those who didn’t attend Classtonbury.

Work samples show that this method of writing in class has been well adopted by students who struggle to start a story or description. They can transplant the ideas created in the classroom directly into their writing and can re-use or adapt a phrase each time they begin writing. An example from the case study of Ben Harris (Appendix 2) clearly shows this: ‘the wind rustling the fallen leaves next to the dilapidated wall’ in the mock exam also appeared in his most recent question 5 practice: ‘I can hear the rustling of the leaves on the trees’ In the May example, Ben was then able to develop his response by adding more detail about what he could see ‘I look around and see a squirrel running up a tree then a family of owls nesting in the trunk.’ In his baseline assessment, Ben struggled to add this level of detail which minimised how much he could write.

Organisational Development

Within the organisation there has been continuing interest in the project and we have been sharing our findings through cross-college Golden Hour and workshop led training days as well as delivering short meditations to staff in other departments. The Construction department has expressed an interest in developing techniques to support bricklayers as thereflections from a teacher on the project workshop is such a noise filled environment. One of the bricklaying tutors shared this relaxation video of brickwork sounds and we will be working together to see if it helps with learner focus and concentration.

The exams office has also been keen to work with us to incorporate elements of mindfulness to reduce exam stress. They investigated with JCQ the possibility of playing mindful music as learners enter the exam hall and although this was not possible within the regulations, we will be working together to provide a calming environment for learners immediately before they enter the exam. Members of the English department are delivering a training session to the exams department after Easter on how to support learners in distress, which will begin with a meditation delivered to participants so they can appreciate the benefits of mindfulness. (Appendix 4, shows feedback from the examination manager following the session.)

Throughout the project, updates have been shared on the organisation’s internal Facebook (Workplace) to promote, highlight and inform others about the project.

A member of the quality team has also expressed interest in setting up a college mindful ‘community of practice’ to share and support the introduction of mindfulness in the classroom.

reflections from a teacher on the project

Learning from this project

The action research project has changed the way, as an English department, we think, plan and approach our lessons. Low impact music without lyrics such as Lofi (Appendix 5) has become a staple in our classroom whenever there is a period of concentration required. Learners enjoy being given a calm environment to work in and most learners actively ask for the music to be put on. Students have submitted songs that help them study to a Padlet which we will use to give students a choice in what they listen to (Appendix 5). We have also learned to slow down in our speech and especially when reading texts. This came directly from reading out meditations during the project and it has a dual benefit in that it not only helps the learner to focus on the text more clearly but also acts as a mini meditation to calm and focus them.

We will continue to use visualisations and layer them with sounds to create an almost 3D experience as a stimulus for writing and we intend to create a resource bank with different settings. It has proved an invaluable method to not only increase confidence but as an accessible activity for all levels of learners. Walks outside or visits to The Collection (a local museum) will also become a more regular element of our lessons.

Some teachers will continue to develop their delivery of mindful meditations at key points within the year, such as, before assessments or at the start of term. However, others now feel more confident to approach it in their own way or simply play mindful music.

Personal reflection

As we near the end of the project, it has moved on beyond our initial aim of encouraging learners to be more resilient and mindful. Two separate branches have developed from the Mindset Over Mastery Tree. Firstly, the organisation is increasingly recognising the value and potential of mindfulness as a tool to combat stress and anxiety – not only for students, but equally for staff. It is a bold statement; however, I am confident that this project has increased awareness of mindfulness in the classroom and encouraged discussion and creativity about how it could be best employed. The second branch is specifically connected to English and the effectiveness of using mindful techniques as a method of improving writing. Using images, sounds and thinking about the senses acts, in some small way, as a replacement for cultural capital. Students who have not been to the beach, or walked in a wood, or visited a circus have nothing in their memory banks to call on when asked to describe these images. Giving learners additional stimuli immediately before the act of writing frees them from the embarrassment of not knowing what to write.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    Our project provided time and space for us to come together as a teaching team to create opportunities for mindfulness, not only in our own practice but in those of our students. By engaging in research activity and asking learners for their perspectives, we were able to understand how much learners valued being given a quiet time for reflection as well as the importance of a calm learning environment.

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of leaners through your enthusiasm and knowledge

    Throughout the year, learners have had access to a range of experiences not normally associated with the English classroom. Going outside the classroom to walk through nature provided them with a memorable link that they have been able to call on repeatedly in their writing.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners

    As a team, the project has given us an opportunity to meet regularly to discuss and feedback on teaching and learning. We felt revitalised by the freedom to try something different and reflect on its impact.

  • 11. Manage and promote positive learner behaviour

    Using meditations with students was, at times, challenging. However, the result afterwards was always a calmer and more focused classroom which improved learner behaviour.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    Students have begun to feel more confident after seeing their writing skills improve. Where once they would have struggled to start, they have reported that writing about the senses greatly helps them feel in control of what they are doing. This in turn, motivates them to do better and creates an enthusiasm to keep aiming for a higher grade.


Appendix 2: Learner Work

Appendix 3: Feedback

Appendix 3: Team Feedback

Appendix 5: The use of music as mindfulness

Appendix 6: Visualisation Resources


Duckworth, A. (2017) Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, London: Vermillion

Dweck, C.S. (2012) How you can Fulfil Your Potential, London: Robinson

OTLA 7 (2021) Resilience, Sheffield College. Accessible at

5b. Leicester College

Improving writing through teaching
grammar and style within the context of
authentic texts

Leicester College

This project aimed to move away from the traditional pattern of teaching writing. It focused on supporting learners to use studied texts as a starting point for discussing their writing choices. Learning was scaffolded to evaluate and develop specific parts of learners’ writing. There was progress in the phrasing and structure of learners’ writing, as well as improvement in their confidence in these skills.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Our thinking was informed by Myhill’s research (Making Meaning with Grammar: A repertoire of possibilities, 2011) with a focus on using selected grammatical structures from authentic texts to improve writing, rather than traditional discreet grammatical teaching. We considered that this would allow learners to see reading and writing as inextricably linked and encourage them to begin to see themselves as writers, making some of those same choices in their own writing, thus leading to improvements in writing quality.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Leicester College is a large multi-cultural inner city FE college, with several campuses. Most of the project focused on one campus where courses are mostly vocational and four learners, from the construction department, were approached to participate as part of a steering group. Also included were three adult learners from the online GCSE; these learners had elected to complete the qualification. Two others from a different campus were asked in January, as numbers were reduced after the November exam results. As the course materials had been rewritten to allow Myhill’s principles to be embedded and used for the whole cohort, views of staff from all three campuses were considered.

It became apparent that we need to acknowledge that this cohort is not the traditional grade 3 standard. The data reflects what we believed. We had entered 496 learners for the November exam: 8% achieved only grade 1 and 10% achieved a grade 2. These lower-level learners found it very difficult to articulate and discuss their grammatical choices, making the teachers’ job even harder than usual.


Our research was based on the promising results from Myhill’s research with schools. Although her participants were younger and had more lessons per week, we felt that we could apply some of the principles in the two hours a week that we had with our learners. We chose to apply the principles that we considered would have the greatest impact. Debra Myhill supported us throughout the research and herself advised that discussion was the most critical principle, particularly as the age group was different to those in her own research. She was available via email for us if we needed clarification or help and, before the project started, we were able to have a conversation with her over video call about the research.

Stage 1
The research began with some adult learners who were on the online GCSE course. These were very motivated and articulate. Our rationale was that the 16-18s were all being prepared to sit the November exam and we needed to focus on covering the whole syllabus in six weeks. These learners formed part of our stage 2 approach.

Authentic texts used for reading sessions served as a basis for learners’ writing. They were encouraged to be more imaginative in their choices and used these texts to mimic textual structures, particular phrases found in certain textual formats, and sentence construction. In addition, they were helped to examine choices that writers had made from authentic texts used in the lessons and to discuss why these choices may have been made, using principle three of Myhill’s research: ‘Build in high-quality discussion about grammar and its effects’.

This led on to the practical application of that learning in the writing part of each session. For example:

  • writing a section from a different viewpoint or in a different tense
  • using creative imitation, for instance to mimic a textual structure and sentence construction
  • improving and rewriting sections of writing after discussion and targeted feedback.

Stage 2
After the November exam, we had the opportunity to review how directed study was working. Learners who were making the expected progress and completing independent directed study to a good standard, remained on this timetable. However, learners who were not making progress, or not completing directed study on a regular basis, were placed in a supervised directed study session. These provided further opportunity for discussion with learners and for them to experiment with texts and target specific areas of their writing.

In December 2021, the Skills for Life team were contacted with resources and help given, to enable them to join with us to apply and look at the impact of some of these principles. They did not participate directly in the research but did begin to apply many of our suggestions in their teaching.

The rest was continued as above, although some participants were able to complete in January 2022, as they had passed the November exam and were no longer on the qualification.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

We achieved all our objectives and we feel that we have a framework that will be even more successful next academic year, once we are back in the classroom for two sessions each week, as that would give us more chance for discussion and explanation.

Every learner found it helpful to ‘borrow’ from authentic texts and to play around with grammatical structures in their own writing and again these learners reported that they felt less ‘overwhelmed’ by the writing process and more able than before to write something with a hint of style. Within class, all were able to discuss their choices and improve paragraphs to a much higher standard. All students were then able to apply this to longer pieces of writing, although the standard was not always maintained. However, their writing generally improved; it was no longer fossilised.

Results in writing tasks proved more creative from an early point in the year than usual, because of the mimicking of writing styles. Many learners have performed better in Paper 1 writing assessments in exam conditions than we have seen in recent years. In every case, learners have improved their writing in class and in mock exams, but some improved significantly. The minimum improvement from the diagnostic writing at the start of the year for those in the steering group (who sat the mock exam), was a 12% increase [+3], with the highest increase being 32.5% [+13]. Although those figures reflected all steering group members across two sites and including the adults, they were mirrored when we split the results between the two sites. More details on individual improvements, and examples of learner writing and comments from them, are included in the appendices.

Pleasingly, Freeman’s Park Campus learners had performed well with all taking the final assessment and achieving the above, (see Appendix 2). Exam pressure seemed to reduce the standard compared to what they had been able to complete in less pressured settings; we must remember that this cohort of 16-18s have been severely impacted by the pandemic and sat very few exams as a result. However, they were able to apply some of what they had learned, with one in particular improving radically.

Abbey Park Campus included the adult online learners who were undertaking distance learning. However, one 16-18 learner chose to leave the mock assessment due to anxiety and did not complete it, and the adult learners involved had started at a far higher level, but there was still a 22.5% to 25% increase from their diagnostic writing, (see Appendix 2).

Impact on Staff

Three teachers have been fully involved in this research with each having learners who had agreed to be part of the steering group. However, the whole team has been teaching in this way throughout the year, as the resources that were written before teaching began were written with these principles embedded. All staff attended an East Midlands Regional Network event with Debra Myhill as the guest speaker, on Strategies to Improve Learner Writing. They also watched further podcasts and read a precis of her research for delivering teaching in this way, prior to the start of teaching and before the research. Professor Debra Myhill herself has been keen to support us in our research and has given advice on how to apply the principles to this young adult cohort.

Staff who are active participants have responded that they have felt more involved, supported and valued than usual. One felt that:

‘the framework of the project has allowed everybody to feel ‘equal’ ‘.

They feel that this is the beginning of something that is effective, and they are pleased that we plan to continue this approach in the next academic year. More detailed responses are included in Appendix 3.

We were able to broadcast our research at a national level as a member of our team also works part time for Edexcel and was asked to present our research at Edexcel’s national webinar to 65 delegates, which was well received.

Staff have attended training on developing writing delivered by the ETF. One recently elected to do more training on Development Day. The Project Lead attended Investigating Grammar – Supporting Your Learners to Understand How Texts Work and Developing Grammar for Reading and Writing. This was disseminated to the full team, who had been unable to attend.

Overall, staff felt that this method has applied better to imaginative writing (than transactional), given our time constraints of one lesson a week this year; it has certainly been easier to teach and monitor the impact. However, in terms of results in mocks, we have seen a strong increase in scores for Paper 2 (transactional writing); perhaps the modelling of phrases and textual format fed into increased results there. Going forward, we can look again at how we can better embed it into transactional writing resources also, with the re-introduction of two lessons a week next academic year along with the removal of directed study, there will be more time for discussion and detailed feedback.

Impact on students

Typical responses from 16-18 steering group members are:

  • So many of the forced resit students have taken the GCSE 3-5 times (if they have been entered for November exams) and have lost hope in their abilities. However, being approached to be part of a steering group and having regular discussions about their work and grammatical choices has meant that all learner participants have reacted well to this attention and seem to be beginning to believe that they can improve.
  • Staff observed that, with these ‘stepping stones’ to their ultimate goal, learners have begun to see the link between reading and writing, which has helped them to begin to see themselves as writers; their writing has improved. They also feel that learners initially joined the research to help us, but have discovered the benefit and are now totally committed to this process.
  • Students fed back that authentic texts give them a structure and a framework as a starting point. They have clearer options and the development and rewriting of one or two paragraphs, rather than the whole, has meant that it is not so ‘overwhelming’.
  • The adult learners involved responded well, although they naturally took part in less ‘discussion’. This was via online chat initially. To facilitate this, we recently created an online group tutorial session for discussions and support. This has proved so effective that this will be included in next year’s programme for this course.

Organisational Development

A range of learners was considered. From the Online GCSE our adults range from 19-50. This was offered to all, but only some females agreed to join. With our mainstream 16-18s, Freemen’s Park Campus learners were asked, both male and female but only males responded. Learners were selected because we felt that they would be honest and were attending classes regularly.

We have positive and collaborative relationships with the three other parts of our college who teach GCSE English Language, but, whilst they were keen to learn from us and were sent detailed information on our research and given access to Myhill’s research, they did not want to play an active part, becoming indirect participants. Firstly, the GCSE team within the Skills for Life Department have been applying some of the suggestions for improving writing and have also been developing reading using suggestions which we shared with them from the Project Lead’s time as an Edexcel examiner.

Secondly, in the ESOL Department, the GCSE teacher, has been applying the discussion principle, however much of her teaching of grammar must be discreet, given the needs of their learners. Time has been set aside to collaborate with these departments to share our findings.

Finally, throughout the year I have had positive and constructive conversations with my counterpart in Functional Skills. She has also applied the idea of using authentic texts as a basis for her learners, but again, was not an active participant.

Learning from this project

We discovered that, as a team, we were naturally reflective practitioners, it was embedded in our practice, but this was an opportunity to reflect weekly on the application of broader principles.

What went well

  • Using the same text for both the reading and writing lessons proved helpful in providing a good example that could be mimicked or borrowed from, in terms of words, structure and rhetorical devices.
  • Learners felt valued and involved in the process and were better able to articulate their thoughts.
  • Learners began to believe that they could write.
  • Learners felt less overwhelmed by the writing tasks and the blank page. They were given a starting place that felt achievable.
  • Learners began to see themselves as writers and to think about their writing choices and to experiment with writing in different ways and styles. It gave them a framework.
  • Students gained in confidence and their ability to use style in the writing improved. It also had the added benefit of them spotting more devices and style, in the reading texts from established writers that we used, thus increasing their scores in the reading section.

Even better if

  • Our understanding of the research and how it would be applied, has developed throughout the year. As we wrote all the study guides in June and July 2021, our ideas have changed. Going forward we will be more explicit about which grammatical structures we choose to concentrate on making it clearer in next year’s resources.
  • The time frame was short and we had to write the materials before we had fully grasped the principles. Not all staff who were involved in writing the course materials had fully grasped the ideas so a small amount of material was ‘misguided’ leading to plagiarism, rather than a base from which to mimic grammatical structures.
  • It would have been better to have begun this across all cohorts at the start of the year. However, we had entered everyone for the November exam so could only start with the adult online GCSE learners, which limited its scope. Next year, we are not entering students en masse and so will be able to be more playful with texts from the onset.
  • The project had to start before we could choose our learners with any insight, so sometimes our choices were, in hindsight, not the best.

Professional Development

By its nature, our research applied a theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment, as we drew upon Myhill’s research and sought to apply some principles of it, albeit differently, to our context. We have chosen to focus on three professional standards. Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    Engaging in this research has enabled us to focus on the particular needs of learners on one campus, whilst applying it to two other groups of learners, who are more academic. We have been able to judge whether our research has made a difference to writing that, for many, had appeared ‘fossilised’.

    Using existing research by Myhill’s team which was conducted on a younger cohort with more regular English lessons, we have been able to apply some of the principles and measure their impact on students. It has meant that learners were able to have a dialogue with teachers on how they learn and what has helped them.

    The steering group’s responses and regular feedback ‘in the moment’, enabled us to build upon the research and apply it more specifically to the learners in our college.
    We have been better able to appreciate learners’ reactions to the chosen texts and to the way that these have been applied.

    We have already begun to make changes to the way that we teach and amend resources, in view of these.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    As reflective practitioners, we review, improve and rewrite our resources every year to continue to meet the diverse needs of our learners. Our evaluative process is always rigorous; we try to make changes to value cultural diversity, to motivate and connect with our learners, who have often lost interest and hope. However, this research gave us the time to evaluate throughout the year in a meaningful way and to gather students’ views too.

    It was helpful to challenge our own views of what would work. We are keen to act on the recommendations of the steering group and embed this research further. Staff fed back that they feel better teachers now that they have the choice to explore, put into practice and then properly reflect on individual professional practice. We also feel that this has helped us to be more collaborative and has prepared us for the trial of changing to a new specification of the GCSE at this campus.

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through your enthusiasm and knowledge.

    Staff observed that, because we taught generally demotivated resit students, in some cases we had reduced our expectations of our students’ capabilities and therefore reduced the challenge too much. However, this research has re-envisioned and re-enthused staff, as well as students.

    It also provided the chance to break the traditional pattern of teaching writing; much of this was a challenge for our teachers. We are beginning to gently push learners more and expect more of them. This research has created a space for 1:1 time with individual learners and this discussion of writing choices has been critical to the improvements seen in students’ writing.
    Being involved in the steering group with a view to making changes, has proved motivating for learners. Some of these have begun to acknowledge that they are improving and have shared that the writing process is now feeling less ‘overwhelming’ as they can ‘borrow’ some style from the texts that they consider in class. This increased enthusiasm and recognition that that the teachers are undertaking research has begun to make a positive difference to learners’ attitudes.


This project was carried out (and report written) by Caroline Weedon (Project Lead) and Michelle Bilby (Project Deputy) alongside their project team: Maria Leah, Rehana Pirmahomed and Beth Kemp.

With thanks to their mentor Dianne Robinson and Research Group Lead Claire Callow, for their support.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Staff responses on the impact of the research on them


Myhill, D. et al, (2011), mETAphor Issue 2, ‘Making Meaning with Grammar: A repertoire of possibilities’, University of Exeter [Accessed April 2021] [Accessed April 2021]
[Accessed 4 November 2021]

5a. Hull College

Developing Resilience through Prose

Hull College

This project aimed to consciously develop student resilience through the presentation and writing of prose in the GCSE English curriculum. We specifically focused on resilience as a curriculum theme and measured the impact of this on the learners.

Would developing the concept of resilience in the curriculum promote resilient thinking?

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Hull is a deprived city and our students often struggle with the problems that emerge from this, including lower than national average academic educational achievement, behavioural problems and, as a result, low attendance. Learners’ experience of English can often be negative, as they either see themselves as failures or they don’t see the relevance of the core English skills. Much of the work of the English team, therefore, focuses on student well-being and confidence building. Alongside this, we work to develop key English skills to enable students to maximise their opportunities in their careers and, more broadly, in their lives. English presents a unique opportunity to explore ideas of resilience within the curriculum. We aimed to use the presentation and production of prose as a method for learners to consciously think about resilience as a route to challenging themselves, focusing on a group of ‘Special Educational Needs and Disabilities’ (SEND) /Employability learners. We took as an initial starting point The Sheffield College’s OTLA 7 project on building resilience through the development of mindsets. Though our approach differed, we were inspired by their use of the language of resilience. We were also inspired by the project-based learning approach developed by Ron Berger in which learners are encouraged to produce beautiful meaningful work.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Our research focused on six core groups of learners, shared by three staff members. The learners were all based in our Employability/SEND department. Many learners are identified as high-needs, with 20% having Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs). A disproportionately large number of the learners had left school prior to exams owing to behavioural issues. Their low-grade profile reflects learning loss through the pandemic. Initial assessments revealed almost all the learners were working at entry level for English.


The project started with the presentation of texts which told a story of a character struggling against difficulty. This included the writing of Beryl Bainbridge, survivor on the Titanic, the story of Lewis Daynes and the murder of Breck Bednar, in addition to extracts from a range of fiction texts. This then prompted discussions about resilience before the regular analytical work took place.

When students undertook creative writing, it was as a story of resilience; the characters they created were dealing with conflict and had to choose how to act in the face of difficulty. Learners developed ideas from prompts before working collaboratively to develop their narratives.

English skills trackerInterestingly, in the collaboration process learners were almost always increasing the conflict faced by the protagonists and, crucially, actively generating ideas together on how the characters would deal with the challenge. For example, one learner’s story – ‘Late for the Exam’ – began with his character missing a bus. By the end of the development phase, the character also had to deal with rude bus drivers, losing money, sitting next to an unruly toddler and dropping his phone at the entrance to college. Each of these challenges had a corresponding character reaction followed by an active discussion regarding coping strategies which the character might use to deal with the conflict. Perhaps most encouragingly (and unexpectedly), learners ‘allowed’ the character to get angry and react badly to situations but ensured that this was followed by an apology or moment of regret and contrition. This was an entirely learner-led discussion and we, as a staff team, were impressed by the learners’ sympathetic understanding of negative feelings as being a temporary, but entirely human event.

Creative writing was structured through our WEST method (Words, Emotions, Structure and Techniques). A prompt word would be presented (for example, ‘Danger’). Learners generated personal connotations from this based on their own experiences. A story structure was then drafted before specific prose techniques were purposefully added for effect. This framework was designed to encourage emotional literacy and language sophistication in the work of the learners.

A selection of our research group of learners engaged with the First Story project, which aimed to develop emotional literacy through poetry and prose, reinforcing many of the themes developed in class.

English skills trackerWe observed that learners were struggling to readjust to the classroom setting and, following such a long period of disruption to their learning routines, were missing fundamental English skills. We rebuilt our delivery to focus on incremental skills development, creating a skills-tracker which was referenced in every lesson (see below and Appendix 3). This allowed us to track progress and focus on the incremental steps to develop their skills further. Alongside this we were mindful of the language used and ensured we remained positive and forward thinking.

Feedback was collected from students and staff on the project at two different points, with a focus on written testimony.

The culmination of the project was the creation of a book of creative writing by the learners on the theme of resilience. This was produced entirely by the learners in our core group and included a launch event to which parents/carers and other college staff were invited.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The teachers involved in the project were all highly skilled, experienced practitioners and were proficient in developing learners’ confidence in English. They reported that the specific focus on resilience as a theme in the curriculum positively impacted their practice as skilled practitioners, they allowed the project to take unexpected turns. For example, one teacher’s use of the ‘cut up’ technique of creative writing (see Appendix 3.D) enabled a disengaged learner to communicate his feelings through assembly of language, rather than the anxieties that can come with language generation.

The group of staff engaged in the project were a close team and had been successfully working together to develop resources and curriculum for many years. Through their involvement in the project, this collaboration has expanded to include conversations on how the resilience of the learners can be developed in the class, and discussions around feelings complement the academic discussion whilst also supporting the learners as people.
Covid-related staff absence had a significant impact on the project during the winter months. The wider discussions which occurred on the theme of resilience and the focus on emotional literacy in the classroom helped both staff and students through a difficult period of disruption to learning. Agency staff also reported that learners were understanding, respectful and showed genuine empathy for the welfare of their teachers.

The development of an explicitly skill-focused curriculum has been transformative. Staff found that it enabled them to provide specific feedback, more effective formative assessment and links to vocational areas leading to increased learner confidence.

Perhaps most surprising has been the opportunity to discuss the emotional journey with learners. We assumed at the start of the project that we would simply focus on the idea of resilience and measure our attempts to develop this. In reality, the project became about emotional literacy, through creative prose – an approach which enabled learners to explore their feelings indirectly through a fictional creation. This was simply done by asking them how they felt about their writing and the characters they had created (see Appendix 2 for case studies), something we had never done before, but which provided rich opportunities for discussion and relationship development.

As previously mentioned, staff-student relationships were significantly developed as a consequence of the project. Providing feedback and having class discussions based not just on the technical elements of the written prose, but the emotional motivations of the characters and authors created a space in the classroom for emotional literacy to grow. When coupled with discussions of ‘difficulty’ in the context of the conflict characters faced this provided a valuable opportunity for learners to talk about issues they may be facing in the second or third person. The abstraction of story writing gave them a degree of cover to send their own feelings into that world and receive supportive responses from their peers (see Appendix 2.A for a case study example).

We discovered that learners have an intuitive understanding of allegory. When, as part of the research, we collected feedback from the learners, many pointed out that the most fantastical story events – for example, an attack on a school by an invading army – were developed from an honest emotional nucleus of the learner (in this case the anxieties brought on by encountering a bully again). This late-stage discovery points to a fascinating future approach to developing emotionally authentic stories which enables learners to explore their feelings.

Organisational Development

  • The writing will be collected into an anthology and will be produced in collaboration with art students in the college. This will then be shared with all learners and will form a reference for next year’s learners.
  • The ‘Skills Builder’ will become our main learner assessment/diagnostic tool, and learning undertaken in college (whether in English lessons or other curriculum areas) will be used to record progress whilst encouraging learners to draw links between their vocational course and English.
  • The focus on emotional literacy/resilience for one term will continue. However, we are integrating other ‘lenses’ into our scheme of work in an effort to develop learners as people. This may include a term in which the ‘lens’ or theme around learning is, for example, self-esteem or aspiration.
  • We will develop the idea of emotional feedback/discussion in all areas of the curriculum. This will be expanded further into the SEND area and our Functional Skills delivery. A future development project is to create a process/language for this which effectively steers learners through the emotional contexts of the lesson content.

Learning from this project

Alongside other measures we have seen a steady increase in learner predicted achievement (for our research groups, learners predicted ‘At Risk’ reduced by 30% in the period of November – February). Though it is difficult to separate our research from other initiatives our qualitative feedback has demonstrated that learners are more confident in talking about the things they find difficult emotionally.

We discovered through our research that:

  • Learners are innately creative and empathetic. Their narrative choices – however simple – seem to be drawn from their own emotional experiences. Recognising this when developing prose had the dual effect of improving their writing and developing their resilience.
  • All teachers should be discussing emotions when using both fictional and non-fictional texts in lessons. Discussions which tie motivations of characters/people to their actions provide learners with an opportunity to reflect on the impact of positive and negative feelings in their own lives. This approach could be developed with its own framework, structure or language, providing a real opportunity for practitioners to make an impact on the inner lives of their learners.
  • Resilience isn’t an easily defined concept. The concept of ‘recovery’ or ‘toughness’ as part of resilience invites unhelpful expectations on how people are expected to react to difficult situations. We experienced learners using phrases such as “I’m not resilient enough”, as if measuring themselves against an undefined standard. It quickly became clear to us that a better approach is to focus on the emotional journeys people are on, the choices they can make and how these can be explored. The more useful term is emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is defined as “recognising emotions, managing our own emotions, recognising emotions in others and developing strategies to cope and deal with these emotions.” (Waterhouse, 2019, p. 10).
  • Emotional literacy can be developed in much the same way as literacy can. By exposure to examples (stories in which characters are dealing with difficulties and the feelings that come from this) and then discussion of those examples (how are the characters dealing with these feelings? Is this helpful?) learners are encouraged to reflect on their own feelings. The opportunity to then create prose in which these feelings can be successfully managed empowers the learner to create their own frameworks for coping with difficulty.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the needs of your learners.

    Our project gave staff an opportunity to pause in their practice and look at the curriculum they were presenting in a different way. The theme of resilience offered another take on how they delivered curriculum, and was an opportunity to rethink their approach to teaching.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    Both the focus on skills in the classroom and the promotion of emotional reflection in writing developed the motivation of learners, with tangible results in the standard of their written work. Furthermore, the positive impact on staff-student relationships as a consequence of the project inspired learners and challenged their attitudes to English.

  • 17. Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals that stretch and challenge.

    Learners were challenged to write in a way and to a higher standard than before. They worked co-operatively and independently and saw their work published – something they never had considered possible.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Supporting Documents


Berger, R. (2003) An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. New York: Heinemann.
Duckworth, A. (2017) Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, London: Vermillion
OTLA 7 (2020) Sheffield College: Resilience, available on
Education and Training Foundation (2014) Professional Standards for Teachers and Trainers in Education and Training, available on: ETF_Professional_Standards_Digital_FINAL.pdf ( [accessed: 11.11.2020]
Waterhouse, A. (2019) Emotional Literacy: Supporting Emotional Health and Wellbeing in School. Abingdon: Routledge

4c: Preston College

Freewriting: a Key to Unlocking Our GCSE English Resit Learners

Preston College

This project explored breaking down barriers to writing and empowering learners to explore and trust their own thoughts and ideas. By responding to prompts, learners soon produced creative stories with relative ease, and some were able to write stories that meet the requirement for GCSE grade 5 and above.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Too often, learners studying English arrive with a fixed mindset of failure; ‘I failed before, so I’m just not good at it’. This mindset shifts focus to confidence and resilience-building, curtailing already limited time to practise and improve reading and writing.
Typically, the creative writing component of the GCSE course is met with much resistance. Creative Writing is often perceived as ‘foreign ground’ or an ‘unnatural component’. Learners seem to perceive it as one step too far. Most are reluctant to put pen to paper and those who do get caught up in self-doubt, self-editing, and fear of being judged.
This project sought to ‘unlock’ behaviours associated with a fixed mindset. We aimed to convert learners to a growth mindset where they can:

  • think of themselves as writers
  • develop the positive habit of writing creatively for their own interest and enjoyment
  • meet the GCSE English Language criteria by writing a clear, descriptive, creative story that demonstrates a good standard of skills.

Our inspiration was Peter Elbow’s ‘Writing Without Teachers’ (1973). Chapter 2 starts, ‘Most people’s relationship to the process of writing is one of helplessness.’ That’s where we were. (See Appendix 3: Project Lead’s inspiration and reflection).

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Four teachers participated from the English Department at Preston College, a general further education college in Lancashire. We worked primarily with L1, 2 and 3 GCSE English learners, but included a non-accredited SEND group and, later, an accredited Functional Skills English SEND group.

Our mission at Preston College is, ‘making our learners the most employable, now and in the future.’ As English skills play an important role in our learners’ employability, it is taught as a core subject, essential for employment and higher education. Teaching staff are well-equipped to contend with ‘resit’ culture and the college’s core values create a strong foundation as we aspire not only to teach English, but to build our learners’ confidence and resilience along the way.


Initially, learners were given an A5 notebook with a creative handwritten depiction of the narrative story arc and one of two quotes on the cover: ‘You can make anything by writing’ by C.S. Lewis and ‘Writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted’ by Jules Renard.

Learners also had access to ‘fancy’ coloured gel pens for their freewriting. Every writing session began with a set prompt, chosen by the teacher. Learners were instructed to write without stopping for ten minutes. The following parameters were given: no worrying about spelling, punctuation, and grammar; no talking; no questions; no editing; just writing until the timer stops.

Teachers aimed to complete the freewriting exercises with learners and make observations of their reactions to the exercises. We recorded whether they wrote intermittently, continuously, or not at all. We recorded whether they engaged in any resistant behaviour or low-level disruption, such as talking, asking questions or use of mobile phones, and physical behaviours like getting out of their seats or fidgeting. Learners were told that notebooks would be anonymised, and that self and peer review activities would take place later in the process.

As the project evolved, we found that we could not make adequate observations and complete the freewriting exercises. Writing continuously and in silence did not meet the needs of our learners and seemed to increase resistance, so we opened up to a variety of methods. Some parts were done in silence, some with discussion. We collected learner feedback and responded to concerns about how we were approaching the freewriting. We opened up to questioning and increased the time and frequency of the freewriting, got rid of the timer, and linked the freewriting to session content, images, or let learners choose from a list of their own prompts. Some groups engaged in sharing their writing when comfort levels allowed, and some opted to share verbally and through discussion. Some preferred not to share.

When we began the narrative writing aspect of our research as a department, the freewriting book became ‘the notebook’ where learners did their freewriting, starters, and creative writing. The freewriting was then integrated seamlessly into both reading and writing lessons, rather than perceived as a ‘stand-alone’ starter. Freewriting could be initiated at any point in the lesson, alongside other activities designed to improve learners’ creative writing.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Both teacher and learner participants recognised that, for the majority, practising freewriting before assessment had a positive impact on assessment performance. Improvement was noted across quality of content, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word count for some learners. Learners articulated this improvement as a change in confidence, a way to get organised, calm down and prepare, adopting freewriting as a class ‘ritual’. The teacher participants also agreed that the freewriting has resulted in most learners engaging with and enjoying writing, and most responding to it with interest. Teacher participants reported positive outcomes of gaining opportunities for reflective practice, collaboration and collecting learner feedback as well as increased confidence in teaching story writing. The most inspiring outcome unfolding is that our learners want to write good, creative stories, full of surprises and palpable tension and description. In short, they now know that they are writers, and they have goals and aspirations.

The research team have observed the following early outcomes for learners:

  • Most learners no longer resist the practice of freewriting
  • Most learners have written at least one creative short story early on
  • Some GCSE learners have written outstanding stories, which would achieve high grade (5 and above) for GCSE English Language.

GCSE learners reported positive outcomes, including:

It’s helped:

  • me become creative with story writing
  • me to plan and organise my writing
  • to clear my mind
  • make my writing clearer.


  • working as a team to gather ideas was helpful
  • I liked to put the plan in my freewriting book
  • it gave time to think about the question
  • I like that we could write about anything
  • it released the mind of prior stress so, with the real question, I can improve on my writing.

SEND learners also reported positive outcomes, including:

  • increased confidence and willingness to share their writing with peers, family and friends
  • increased writing. Learners are now writing 2 – 3 pages
  • learners are asking questions around how to improve, without being prompted.

Organisational Development

This action research project has opened a collaborative space in our department. Teacher participants have enjoyed a monthly lunch meeting where we can share progress and challenges and brainstorm ways to approach shared objectives in future. We do not currently have any other meetings or spaces for this. We have established a collaborative community of practice, not only about teaching creative writing, but teaching the GCSE English and Functional Skills curriculum as a whole.

This community has enabled all participants to remain open and honest about our teaching as we share good practice and learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This was particularly beneficial in terms of how learners were provided with prompts, how they gave feedback and how we recognised their writing. Resources were shared, tried, and amended. Lessons learned were disseminated and used to inform next steps.

Future plans include extending the project cross-college as online CPD training will be rolled out by the project team to help meet the OFSTED target of embedding English across Vocational areas. Both the Quality and research teams agree that this initiative will also foster good practice in terms of inter-department collaboration and support.

Learning from this project

See also Appendix 5: Uncomfortable Lessons

Regularly ask learners for feedback to ensure we are meeting their needs

Teachers need to remind themselves to collect feedback regularly to evaluate and challenge practice and meet learner needs. The information collected here has been invaluable. It is crucial that we ‘tap into source’ and remain mindful of learner views and experience. We are now questioning other aspects of the course and how collecting learner feedback could improve teaching and learning.

Respond to feedback in a clear, open and honest manner

The real catalyst for change was what we did with feedback. Ensuring that learners understand the purpose of freewriting, and reassuring them of how to go about it, was a step forward and a way to gain trust. Making explicit use of learner feedback in the classroom was a turning point as it acknowledged and valued their contributions to the process.

It is worth shifting the focus from curriculum to skills building

The teaching and learning year is usually based on a set curriculum. In July, as teachers we already know ‘what we should be working on’ on any given date. The curriculum has prescribed what we do in the classroom day to day. In this post Covid-19 year, we have been forced to pause, take stock, and listen to learners. (See also Appendix 6: Shifting the Focus from Curriculum to Skills Building Post Covid-19).

The most significant finding from learner feedback was that they wanted more time. Freewriting was another way to achieve the ultimate goal: creating literate, competent writers. There was a lot to gain by breaking away from the comfort of routine and, ultimately, nothing to lose.

Assessment is not the only way to measure progress and learning

According to a report that compares school standards in 22 countries, ‘English children are tested longer, harder and younger than anywhere else in the world’ (Woolcock 2008). Our research confirmed that over-assessment seems to do our learners more harm than good.

I [the project lead] observed some learners thrive in their freewriting, persuasive, and story writing only to perform poorly at formal assessment. I observed learners growing from the joy they were experiencing in their own writing and absolutely seizing up when presented with a timed assessment of the same type of task. Our research outcomes have led us to recommend that teachers find innovative ways to reduce assessment and approach their teaching with an attitude that the proof is in the process. The pudding will come.

Trust in teacher professionalism and establish time for a community of practice to meet regularly

This project has enabled us to be proactive about meeting our needs: sharing good practice and lessons learned, confidence building and feeling supported by a community. Action research is already a part of teaching and perhaps we should behave as such. (See also Appendix 7: Creating Space).

As teachers of writing, our job initially is to help learners find and value their voice

I learned that if our learners don’t recognise and value their own voices enough to write, progress is not possible. Much as we are teaching our learners to write, we are teaching them how to organise and trust their thoughts and feelings. English teachers need this to be recognised and we need the space to achieve this with confidence. This means less formal assessment and prescription around how to deliver competent readers and writers. The action research process forced me to create that space and do what I felt was right, given the circumstances. (See also Appendix 8: Teacher Reflections).

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

See also Appendix 4: Professional Standard 3 Inspiring, motivating and raising aspirations of learners.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners

    Our project has created an opportunity for teachers to examine our methods and how our learners respond to these. Whilst we are keen on learner reflection, we had forgotten the importance of teacher reflection. Teachers kept a journal to record what was and was not working in our classrooms. We brought the journal to our monthly meetings to collect lessons learned and ideas for next steps. Because of the nature of the challenge, it was very important that we met learner needs. After all, they could just not write, something we observed early on. It was vital that we examined what we were doing, asked learners what they needed and responded appropriately. Had we not engaged in this consistent reflection, we could not have moved forward and would not have achieved our current positive outcomes.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    We created a space where the team could reconnect with this professional standard. The project dictated that we experiment, get feedback and, more importantly, reflect on feedback to evaluate and revise our practice, values and beliefs. We had been following a rigid curriculum where learners were prescribed story prompts and tasked with writing and revising (usually) the same story throughout the unit. The project enabled the learners and teachers to try new prompts and new topics every session. We observed how learners were responding, thought about what we were doing and changed how we were delivering the prompts and what they were.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    In the interim stages of the project, my [the project lead’s] learners and I transformed our writing sessions into ‘workshops.’ We were ‘vibing’ – connecting, making references to pop culture, science fiction, social media, discussing possibilities for their writing and acknowledging what went well, what could be better, what outcomes they wanted when the story was over, etc. It seemed a love for stories and writing was infectious after all.
    Learners wanted to write better stories. They wanted to get the dialogue, spelling, punctuation, and grammar right. They are accepting responsibility and feeling accountable for their own stories.


Appendix 1: The Project Team

Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Lead’s inspiration and reflection

Appendix 4: Professional standard 3: Inspiring, motivating and raising aspirations of learners

Appendix 5: Learning from this project (Uncomfortable Lessons)

Appendix 6: Shifting the focus from Curriculum to Skills Building Post-Covid

Appendix 7: Creating Space

Appendix 8: Teacher Reflections

Appendix 9: Learner Feedback Video


Asraf, M. (2018). ‘Using Focused Freewriting to Stimulate Ideas and Foster Critical Thinking During Prewriting’, TESOL International Journal, vol 13, no 4, Pages 67-81. Available at: (Accessed: 15 February 2022).

Elbow, P. (1973). ‘Writing Without Teachers’. 25th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Woolcock, N. (2008). ‘English children are most tested in the world’, The Times (London), 8 February 2008, Page 31. Available at: (Accessed: 16 February 2022).