The 6 Skills: An Overview and Skill 1: Tentative Language

Writing analytically is a complex skill which needs to be broken down, made explicit and demystified for students. In my early days as an English teacher, I would set lengthy written tasks and foolishly hope that written corrective feedback (which was always necessary as the success rate was so low) would remedy the poor output that I received. I gave well meaning but absurd comments like ‘You need to analyse in more detail’ or ‘You need to develop your points further’ without really considering the opaque nature of the verbs that I was using. I understood them with a rich level of detail; my students did not.

Analysis, like all genres of written expression, can be split into purpose and form or the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Claire Hill and and Becky Wood have both written excellent blogs explaining how the ‘what’ of analysis can be split into three broad categories:

1)What is the author saying

2) How are they saying it

3) Why are they saying it

While these three broad areas can help students understand the types of declarative knowledge within an essay, what we have tentatively called ‘The 6 Skills’ (I am still unsure if these 6 are sufficiently distinct or whether they comprehensively encapsulate analysis!), is an attempt to formalise the approaches, methods and techniques required when writing analytically.

What/How/Why allows students to understand the content of the writing; the 6 skills exemplify the form.

PEE/PEEL and other similar frameworks were problematic and restrictive, resulting in clunky, predictable and overly formulaic paragraphs. Invariably, iterations of these abbreviations and acronyms also have fixed orders, placing evidence in the middle, one of the problematic inferences being that each train of thought contains only one quotation. Interesting analytical writing does not follow a predictable, sequential order. Finally, PEE also precludes embedded quotations, due to the unnatural scaffolding of sentence stems like ‘My evidence for this is….’.

Unlike PEE/PEEL, there is no fixed, consecutive order for how the 6 skills are deployed and applied, meaning that student responses are not as formulaic and rigid. As Becky mentions in her blog, the How/What/Why approach also allows for different ordering.

Although students will study worked examples that contain most if not all of these skills from the beginning of year 7, they will practice the skills individually and cumulatively, through a process involving backwards fading and slowly building students up to being able to use all 6.

This annotated model gives an overview:

6 skills

6 Skills Progression Model

Before teaching any of the skills, students need to be secure with using embedded evidence. The list below is an attempt to sequence them in order of difficulty and utility, the later skills being more difficult and requiring a deeper knowledge of the text before they can be attempted successfully.

1) Tentative Language

2) 3 Part Explanation

3) Zoom In/Technique

4) Multiple Interpretations

5) Evidence in Explanation

6) Link Across Text

Engelmann’s DI programmes contain ‘tracks’ where teaching is spread across multiple lessons. Initial teaching and practice is through restrictive drill exercises, often beginning with copying models or only attempting a few steps in a procedure. Through a process of backwards fading, exercises become less restrictive and students are eventually asked to apply the specific knowledge or skill within a wider application. While DI programmes have these ‘tracks’ meticulously and methodically planned into the scheme, ensuring that learning is as efficient as possible, we are currently using a separate progression model in the form of a table:

6 Skills progression model

The 6 Skills are listed vertically, ordered by complexity and beginning with the simplest-tentative language. This follows Engelmann’s philosophy to the sequencing of skills:  easier things should be taught before harder things and we should teach the components before the whole. Horizontally, the table moves from restrictive drills to eventual wider application. The number of lessons here is a rough guide to how long a teacher should spend at each level of application: more competent groups may be able to move quicker and really low groups may need further practice.

DI programmes use extensive field testing to ensure that this continuum from restricted practice to wide, free application is fine tuned: programmes should spend as little time as possible teaching concepts whilst ensuring really high success rates for even the weakest learners. In future, we will plan our progression model and 6 skill ‘tracks’ into our booklets. In the meantime, teachers have a copy of this progression model table for each class and can use it as a reminder document, ticking off the boxes to ensure that students receive adequate teaching and practice on each of the analytical skills.

Skill 1: Tentative Language

Why teach it?

Studying literature at a sophisticated level requires a reader to recognize that there are a plurality of acceptable interpretations available. Literary analysis often has a tentative and exploratory tone: interpretations are inherently subjective and tentative language implicitly demonstrates that a line of argument is one of many and certainly not definitive.

What to teach?

  • Perhaps
  • It is as if/ as if
  • It could hint at
  • seems
  • It could suggest
  • …gives the impression
  • ..appears to be


How to teach it?

While the instructional sequence below could be seen as overly detailed, it was written to help the lowest performers in year 7; more able classes could probably cope with less practice at each stage. The sequence broadly follows the I-WE-YOU continuum.

LESSON 1: Step One

Our booklets are filled with worked examples of analytical writing: in vocabulary tables, there are models of sentences and when students are asked to write, they will have usually have deconstructed an analogous paragraph. From the beginning of year 7, students encounter sentences that contain tentative language. Teachers can begin by highlighting and drawing attention to the specific constructions within these worked examples and asking students to copy their annotations.

LESSON 1: Step Two

Write model sentences that contain tentative language; ask students to copy and label.

  • Henry commands his men to ‘imitate the actions of the tiger’. It’s as if he wants them to be vicious, aggressive and brutal.
  • Henry commands his men to ‘imitate the actions of the tiger’. Perhaps he is asking them to be predatory and violent.
  • Henry commands his men to ‘imitate the actions of the tiger’ which could suggest that he wants them to be dominant in battle like a predator

LESSON 1: Step Three

Ask them to complete sentences ORALLY, using the same structures that you used in the models that you wrote in step two. Keeping the same sentence structure here is crucial, allowing students to use them as analogies.

  • Henry asks his men to ‘disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage’

LESSON 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7:

The teacher should continue to highlight the tentative structures in model paragraphs and sentences, asking students to copy their annotations. Student could then be asked to complete retrieval practice of the specific tentative constructions, perhaps giving them clues to aid recall:

  • Pe……….
  • It is ………………
  • It c……… h…….. at
  • s…
  • It c……………… suggest
  • give the im………..
  • ap…….. to be

Once they have demonstrated perfect recall of the structures in retrieval practice, students can be asked to find the structures in model paragraphs themselves.

The teacher can write a short paragraph with NO TENTATIVE language. Under the camera, change the first few sentences to TENTATIVE, then ask them to do ones that are underlined:

Henry gives a rousing speech to his men, commanding them to ‘stiffen the sinews’. He wants them It is as if he wants them to toughen up and steel themselves for battle. He orders them to ‘summon up the blood’ which means which could suggest he wants them to be impassioned and prepared. He knows that the odds are against them and that the battle will be arduous and dangerous. He commands them to ‘set the teeth’. This means that he wants them to look menacing and threatening. This is because he wants them to terrify the enemy.

The teacher can then ask them to complete sentences with tentative language in them, using the same structures from step two in lesson 1. While lesson 1 involved fully worked examples, this task involves completion problems.

LESSON 8, 9, 10

Students could be asked to write their own sentences using tentative language. By this point, there is no scaffolding or support and students are working at the ‘I’ stage of the I-We-You continuum.

Wider Application

  • At first, include ‘tentative language’ as a success criteria in their paragraphs. Eventually, take this success criteria out.
  • Similarly, include ‘tentative language’ as a specific check when they read through their work; again, remove this check when it is no longer needed.

General Points:

  • Do not expect them to use tentative language in paragraph or more extended writing until they are able to do it accurately and independently at a sentence level.
  • Success rate should be continually high at each stage (>80% correct for all students)
  • If it is lower: maybe you need to provide more scaffolding, give more models, move back a stage on the I-WE-YOU continuum

Next Post: Skill 2: The 3 part explanation


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