Time to Reflect and Improve: Purple Pens

Purple Pens

Helen Birchill, Susan Knowles, Charlotte Goodchild and Sarah Jones share the results of their Action Research Project.

Are you fed up with spending hours marking students’ work only for your feedback to be ignored? Would you like a strategy that enables you to show Ofsted how students have acted upon your advice and made progress? Do you think that students should take on some of the responsibility for drafting and improving their work?

If your answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above – then purple pens might just be what you’re looking for!

Like you, we felt that we needed a new approach to marking; one that would keep the volume of marking in proportion to the level of impact it would have on improving learning outcomes.

Faced with students repeatedly skimming over our (meticulously) written comments, we trialled the use of ‘response pens’ across a range of curriculum areas and year groups as a way of getting students to engage with teachers’ feedback and – most importantly – act upon this and make progress.

In short, the concept of response pens is that when students receive marked work back, they are given time in lesson to reflect upon and respond to this thereby creating a dialogue between teacher and pupil.  As a group, we decided to encourage students to use a purple pen to annotate and improve their work; this could be something as simple as correcting spellings or grammar or for the more advanced students substantiating ideas with detailed theories and evidence.

Whilst the colour of the pen doesn’t really matter, we found that students not only enjoyed the novelty and routine of  using it, but the use of a coloured pen also allowed both teacher and student to see – at a glance – the progress being made. Often, we found that once students were au fait with this process, they would refer to their annotations when faced with a similar task or examination question.  In fact, by the end of trial students would frequently request the hallowed purple pen as soon as soon as they received their books back in anticipation of being able to autonomously improve their work.

Obviously, this process should by no means be regarded as a strait-jacket; there are numerous ways and methods by which we can adapt our practice and encourage students to ‘close the gap’ and act on feedback.  However, we found that as a concept response pens required only a small amount of teacher input with regards to introducing the strategy, yet resulted in maximum student benefit.

ARP pictures


Kagan in the Classroom


Resident Kagan expert Vicky Littler shares a selection of co-operative learning structures that can easily be used in the classroom.

What is Kagan?

Kagan activities are any tasks in which students work both independently and collaboratively with others in order to further their learning. This learning process is simultaneous; students are learning together and there can be no ‘passengers’ or ‘opt outs’.

Why should teachers engage with Kagan?

The activities facilitate interaction between students and gives them a chance to be active learners in your lessons (quite literally – they’ll be out of their seats!)

Did you know? The oxygen supply to the brain is increased by approximately 15% just by standing up?

Kagan also gives you a chance to take a back seat so you can observe errors or misconceptions about a subject or topic and address them. The activities can be modified, tweaked and differentiated to meet the needs of all students in your classroom. They’re also a great way of making ‘boring’ topics like punctuation more palatable.

Top three Kagan Structures:

Quiz – quiz – trade:

quiz quiz trade

Each student is given a card with a question, coaching tip and answer on it. Pupils put their hands up and find a partner (hand up again when free!) Specify which person is to ask their question first (e.g. shortest hair). If they each get the answers right students can swap cards.

Differentiation: split class in two: higher and lower order questions; the pupils must circulate within their ‘half’. Alternatively, high ability students can write the QQT cards themselves to consolidate learning.


Each student is given a card with a name/ figure/ fact on it… Students will be given a specified amount of time to ‘cluster’ their information into groups of some significance – e.g. characters from a particular Shakespearean play

Differentiation: higher ability can create cluster activities for you; you can tell students how many groups there are in total before they try to make links between their pieces of information or give them a clue!

Show down:

Students get into groups of four – each group has a set of questions (these can be printed or shown on a white board). Each person attempts the questions individually (I use whiteboards – one minute limit – the buzzer works well as students know when the time is up)

When 1 minute is up students share answers – they then have another minute to reach a consensus and write the agreed answer down

Example cards:Example Cards

Australian Autonomy: Primary Students Taking Control


Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Recently I read about the work at Wilmslow High School as described on Lookout for Learning. Their Innovation Day and creative approaches to setting homework made me think back to work I did at my previous primary school. My year five class were studying the topic ‘Australia’. We had completed lots of the usual activities/lessons covering a wide range of curriculum areas. I had linked maths and literacy and they had written some fabulous Dreamtime Stories that showed great imagination. But…I felt that there was an exciting learning opportunity being missed. Had I made a really interesting topic less exciting by teaching ‘stuff’ that I thought they ought to learn? I definitely had that sense of something missing but couldn’t quite pin-point what.

Then I met a fellow teacher on an SEN course and she showed me how she had used Bloom’s Taxonomy and theories on learning styles to plan a curriculum led by child interest and one that made use of their skills and aptitudes. Effective differentiation had been her main goal and she wanted so much more than just all, most and some. Her enthusiasm for what she had seen in her classroom inspired me to be more creative in my thinking. Taking her original template I identified tasks that the children could choose to do that would be linked to our Australia topic.

I decided to have an ‘Australia’ week to round off the topic. The children were sent home with the ‘plan’ two weeks in advance. I wanted to involve parents in what their children were learning and I wanted there to be lots of talk about what they were going to choose to do. This was useful because it allowed me to anticipate what resources I needed to supply and to structure the week so that it wasn’t a total free for all. To be fair to the children they didn’t need a lot of organising and there was very little time wasting because they were doing what they wanted to do.

As the week got closer I could tell a there was a genuine spark of interest. Parents were asking about it – some volunteered to come and help. We decided that we would need a celebratory event at the end of the week where children could showcase their learning to the rest of the school and to their families and friends.

So, the week began. I was very fortunate to have a headteacher who was very supportive of cross curricular approaches and he was very enthusiastic and interested in the choices that the children made. Soon there was a real ‘buzz’ in the classroom. Other children in the school were asking me what my class were doing. Colleagues were visiting and asking questions and the children were busy and intent on what they were doing.

So, it was great fun, but what was being learned? The list is endless but here are some examples:

Facts – I lost track of the number of children who said “Miss, did you know that…”

Problem solving skills – many of the tasks required the children to think hard about how they would use the available materials to their best advantage.

Maths – creating scale models and having to work out currencies

Communication – many of the tasks involved paired or group work at the children’s request. I overheard some of the most skilled negotiations as roles were allocated and responsibilities assumed. Ideas were shared and discussed with only a little teacher questioning required to ensure that the original task was not forgotten.

Research skills – use was made of many sources; the internet, library books, travel brochures, diaries and interviews with people who had been to Australia. The research undetaken seemed very purposeful to them and they were driven to find out.

Resilience – often things did not go according to plan. Materials were sometimes limited and children had to acquire new skills in order to complete tasks – especially those design and technology skills of joining!

Now that was the children – but what did I learn?

• That I can plan in a very cross-curricular way
• That differentiation does not have to mean higher/middle/lower
• That I don’t need to always be in control of every aspect of learning
• The importance of ‘purposeful’ work in terms of motivation
• That some children in my class had hidden talents

There were several highlights for me that week. Many centred on those children who didn’t always find learning easy but who found that they could use their talents to great effect and go on to teach other children and share their expertise.

I have great memories of the model of the Great Barrier Reef done in only three colours of modelling dough because that’s what I had been able to borrow from our year 1 class. The boy (who had been diagnosed with Autism at an early age and who found many forms of communication challenging) who made that was able to describe and explain all about the sea creatures he had made and what their characteristics were.

Then there was the girl who always hung back and never volunteered her own ideas but who turned her Aboriginal style painted fabric into a dress for a mini mannequin. It was a blessing to see her telling the other girls how she had done it and helping them to do something similar.

Two children worked together to make Sydney Opera House. They used templates drawn on newspaper by one of the fathers. Some people said that was cheating – I didn’t think so – parents became involved in what their children were doing and useful lines of communication were established that continued throughout the year to the benefit of the child. It was never a competition anyway.

On the last day of the week we held our ‘gallery’ opening. Parents, friends and others were able to come and view what the children had done. Shy children were seen explaining why they chose certain tasks and what they had learned whilst doing them.

So that was WWW, what about EBI?

Would I change it if I was doing Australia week again? Yes there are definitely some changes I would make – I would change some of the tasks as I now think there are some that were not very inspiring. I would make greater use of peer review and identify opportunities for greater and more creative use of ICT. But, I would not wish to change the ultimate outcome of children taking control of their own learning and being able to communicate this to a wider audience.

And in true teacher form – Next Steps…

Since this I have moved school and now teach year 3 and for a number of reasons I have not tried something along these lines. In the coming summer term our whole school theme is going to be Identity. My personal challenge is to devise something similar that my class can access and where they can show their interests and talents to their peers and to the wider community.

Any suggestions are gratefully received!

Carole Harding tweets from @Carole_XLIX

Carole’s bio:

My first career was in the Nuclear Engineering Industry but I took the opportunity for a career break/rethink when my youngest son was born. I worked as a Teaching Assistant for ten years and during the last five of those I completed my teaching qualification part-time whilst working full time and bringing up my two sons. I qualified to teach in 2006 and have worked in two primary schools. I have been a SENCO for five and a half years and I am passionate about making outstanding provision for children with special needs. I am on the senior management team and enjoy the resposibility and challenge of this alongside my class teaching. I love being a teacher and retraining was the best career decision I have made. I am always looking to learn and improve what I do in school.