Colour Coded Wet Rats – improving analytical writing in English

Back in December I blogged about my use of colour coded self-assessment with my GCSE Media Studies class, and I promised a follow-up as I applied the model to English. Here is the result!

Colour coded self-assessment is a technique I stole from Louise Pope (@philosophypope), our incredible Head of PSHRE and member of my teaching and learning team. The aim is to get students to identify where they have met the success criteria for a piece of work using coloured highlighting or underlining. Making it visual in this way enables them to spot patterns. For example, they might be hitting one aspect all the time, but another only sporadically or not at all. Having highlighted their first draft, students can then make improvements in their redrafts focused on expanding on the areas they didn’t hit so often the first time.

This year I have a wonderful Year 10 GCSE English Language and Literature group, and we have been working on Romeo and Juliet for the past term. Their understanding of the play was strong, they were engaged and focused. When writing about the play, they knew all about PEE paragraphs but their explanations just weren’t full and detailed enough. Luckily, we have appointed a fantastic new second in English this year, who has revolutionised our teaching of analytical writing with WET RATS.

I worry that I’m late to the party here, and that English teachers up and down the country have been using this technique for years and I’ve somehow been missing out. But WET RATS was new to me, and it has transformed the way my students write about literature. Here is what WET RATS are:

Romeo and Juliet

The mnemonic is used purely for the explanation part of a PEE paragraph. Students don’t need to to use all of the WET RATS in every paragraph, but it gives them options for things to write about. I taught it by modelling how a paragraph might expand from a single quotation in Romeo and Juliet: 

My paragraph was constructed with the students – it’s not intended as an examplar! Also, it’s important that not all of the WETRATS need to be included in a paragraph. I only did that here in order to demonstrate them, and I’m very conscious that my point about “structure” is weak!

Following on from this we have used WETRATS several times to increase familiarity with the mnemonic and the technique itself. This culminated in a full essay on how Shakespeare creates sympathy for Juliet in Act 3 Scene 5 of the play. I’ve used this essay question many times in teaching the play, but the quality of the analysis my students produced was a real step up from their earlier work. We were on our way!

Of course, as a strong proponent of Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence approach, the first draft is only the beginning (I’ve seen Austin’s Butterfly!) So after the students had completed their drafts, I got them to colour code each element of the WETRATS across their essays. Here is a gallery of some of their work:

The process of colour coding was invaluable. Firstly, it gave them a specific purpose and focus for critically re-reading their own work – a world away from “check your spellings”! Secondly, it caused them to highlight (literally!) which aspects of the success criteria they were hitting more or less often, identifying clear areas for development and well as strengths. And thirdly, when I came to mark their work I already had a scaffold around which to build my feedback. Interestingly, some of the feedback was along the lines of “you’ve clearly written about structure here, but you haven’t highlighted this section.” This may identify a misconception about what “structure” means as a concept in literature (possibly due to my poor modelling of it in the demonstration), or possibly lazy self-assessment. In either case, something to address!

My second experiment with colour-coded self-assessment has been even more successful than the first, as well as helping the students to engage fully with the WETRATS technique. As with any scaffold, the key will be to take it away gradually so the students can write this well independently – I’m with Tom Sherrington on this one! But at this early stage, performance and the students’ awareness of their own learning and progress is markedly better. And more colourful!

Closing the Gap Marking – Twilight CPD

As part of our twilight INSET programme this year I am delivering a CPD session on marking. It’s a great opportunity to bring together lots of ideas from lots of superb bloggers, teachers and thinkers – it’s been quite difficult to condense everything down! Here is the Prezi I’m using in the session (click this link if you can’t see the embed):

I have also adapted this session for Pedagoo South West and a 45 minute version of the 90 minute session can be found by clicking this link, along with the video of the session on YouTube.

The aims of the session are to improve the effectiveness of marking without spending more time on it. This will be done by looking at:

  • Public Critique (via Tait Coles here)
  • Triple Impact Marking  (via David Didau here)
  • DIRT (via Alex Quigley here)

Why are we looking at marking? Because…well, I’ll let Phil Beadle take this one:


I chose that photo on purpose.

The key thing to first is identify the gap that we’re trying to close. Fortunately, Tom Sherrington already has this covered in his Making Feedback Count blog:


Graphic adapted from @headguruteacher

It’s the gap between students receiving the feedback and acting on it that we need to address. There is no better example of this process in action that Austin’s Butterfly, also blogged about by Tom here, and demonstrated by Ron Berger himself here:

Nowhere is the power of feedback on performance better demonstrated than in this example! Our feedback needs to be:

  • Specific
  • Hard on the content
  • Supportive of the person

And by “our”, of course I mean peer and teacher feedback, since Berger’s example is primarily focused on teacher-mediated peer feedback.

To demonstrate this, I ask colleagues to undertake a public critique exercise (inspired in part by the Alan Partridge clip used by Tait Coles at TeachMeet Clevedon). I ask staff to produce something to a set of criteria – a haiku, in the Prezi example – and submit it for public critique using Tait Coles’ critique sheets. I have adapted them so that there is space at the top measured for post-it notes to fit into – because I’m obsessive like that. You can download the Public Critique Sheet here.

Following reflection on public critique and applications in practice, we move on to Triple Impact Marking. This idea comes from David Didau and is captured in this presentation from his blog:

A key component of Triple Impact Marking is DIRT – Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time. Alex Quigley explains the concept in detail (with links) here, but essentially students need TIME to act on the feedback given. This is where the gap is closed. I have been as guilty as any teacher of handing back meticulously marked books, asked my class to read the comments, and then got on with the next bit of the course. What. A. Waste. Well no more – we’re getting DIRTy.

To conclude our look at feedback, who better than Dylan Wiliam (via Mark Miller here):

This emphasises the importance of creating a successful feedback culture to enable a growth mindset. No grades. No levels. Specific targeted feedback, hard on the content, soft on the person.

To conclude the session, an exercise looking at managing marking workload. Many of these ideas come from another excellent Mark Miller blog, found here. There are twelve strategies and staff note down the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy in terms of learning and performance gains and workload implications. The idea is to evaluate each strategy in terms of its overall cost benefit to the busy classroom professional.

Twelve Tips and Tricks for marking and feedback

Twelve Tips and Tricks for marking and feedback

As a takeaway I’ve also adapted the sheet that Tom Sherrington blogged from Saffron Walden High School – you can download the Student engagement with written feedback sheet which can be seen here:
Increase marking impact
What has become clear to me in planning this inset is how rich my personal learning network is. The blogosphere is teeming with great ideas about marking, feedback and critique – all I had to do was synthesise the great work of others and stitch it into a package that will fit into 90 minutes of a dark, January evening. I hope it will go well!