The 6 Skills part 3b: Techniques

Analytical Progression Model

  1. Tentative Language
  2. Three Part Explanation
  3. Zoom in/Technique
  4. Multiple Interpretations
  5. Evidence in Explanation
  6. Link Across Text

Why teach it?

If taught badly, focusing on techniques can be harmful, unfortunately resulting in students merely labelling language-often incorrectly- and not interpreting or responding to it. If taught well, students can use the terminology to ‘enhance rather than drive responses’ (AQA English Language Paper 1 Examiner’s Report June 2018), making links between language, form and ideas.

This article , written by Mark Roberts, argues that we should not shy away from teaching specific terminology. Mark makes the important point that ‘Feature spotting is a sign of sloppy teaching, rather than an indicator of an unnecessary term’, an assertion that I would agree with.

For some students, there is a certain allure to the nomenclature of literary techniques. Esoteric and technical, literary techniques are seen by some pupils as a clear marker of expertise. Students like learning and applying new vocabulary, particularly words that seem academic and recherché and one of our main roles as teachers of any subject is to broaden our students’ vocabularies.

However, if this allure becomes a fixation and the search for techniques becomes the sole ‘drive’ of student responses, then this can be detrimental: a student who believes that they must find a technique in an extract will panic and become demotivated when they cannot find one. Students should be taught that commenting upon techniques is one of many possible avenues of interpretation.

All techniques require analysis but not all analysis requires techniques! (Chiasmus!)

Students should know about the different methods and techniques that writers use to create effects: this will not only improve the precision of their analysis, but it can also help them develop the sophistication of their descriptive and rhetorical compositions. Knowing the meaning of ‘chiasmus’ (a rhetorical or literary figure in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order) can be incredibly useful and exploring how it is used in the texts that we teach is often used as a springboard to students practicing using the technique themselves. While persuasive writing is clearly more than applying a set of techniques, providing students with a tool box of approaches can go some way into improving the clarity, precision and tone of their writing.

‘Technique: What to teach?’

Students should be taught to recognize and identify specific techniques; they should also be taught how to make use of this knowledge by explicitly teaching the sentence forms that they will need to use when responding to a text. At the end of KS3, students should have mastered these two connected areas.

What to teach: Specific Techniques  

Here are some screenshots from our knowledge organisers, focusing on poetry:

Year 7: Poetry from Other Cultures

In our KS3 curriculum, the first year 7 unit is on poetry and we expect students to learn a number of poetic devices: most of them are word or sentence level techniques.

yr7 poetic techniques

Year 8: Romantic Poetry

In year 8, a second poetry unit introduces terminology connected with structure and form:

yr8 poetry

Yr.9: War

In year 9, students begin with a term long thematic unit on ‘War’ and they learn further terminology, including:




Previously, we asked students to learn almost the same body of knowledge every time they encountered a specific text type: this is what is referred to as a ‘spiral curriculum’ and I wrote about the problems with such an approach here.

Now, students are expected to master and retain the knowledge that we teach to them, something that is aided massively through systematic retrieval practice.  Students are regularly tested on their knowledge of the techniques that we teach and we deliberately ask them varied questions so that their understanding is deepened.

In year 7, the units that we teach are broadly focussed on one text type, the idea being that students will master the basic knowledge required when responding to that text type. From year 8 onwards, units become broader in scope, allowing student to encounter a range of text types, applying and adding to the knowledge that they mastered in year 7.

What to teach: Sentence Forms


In year 7, we teach students basic sentence structures like these:

The simile ‘……………….’ suggests…

The writer uses the noun ‘multitude’ to convey

The writer uses the simile ‘………………….’ to convey…

The use of a simile creates….

Yr8 and Yr9

Once students have mastered the basic forms that are taught in year 7, we teach a number of other constructions which integrate other analytical skills and grammatical structures. Before students are asked to integrate these different skills, they will have practiced and mastered them in isolation. As Engelmann points out, ‘prerequisite skills should be taught before the strategy itself’. Seen through the lens of Cognitive Load Theory , this makes complete sense: if you are asking students to combine different skills, then in order to prevent excessive and unwanted cognitive load, students should be proficient in each of the components, freeing up their working memories so that they can direct their attention to combining the skills.

Here is an example:

Caesar is described as being ‘like a colossus’, a simile that not only conveys the extent of his power and authority but also demonstrates his arrogant, pompous and supercilious nature.

This construction combines a number of different components, each of which were initially taught in years 7 and 8.

Here are some of the components:

1) Caesar is described as being ‘like a colossus’,

  • This particular structure for embedding is taught in year 7

2) simile

  • Although many know this from KS2, students learn this in the first unit in year 7

3) his arrogant, pompous and supercilious nature.

  • This is a 3 part explanation, one of the first analytical skills that we teach in year 7.

4) a simile that not only conveys the extent of his power and authority but also demonstrates his arrogant, pompous and supercilious nature.

5) not only….but

  • This particular structure allows students to create multiple interpretations, one of our 6 skills, and is normally taught at the beginning of year 8.

If we truly want to teach to mastery, ensuring that student success rate is consistently high, then we should teach the prerequisite skills for a strategy before the strategy itself. If students master the components, then they are much more likely to master the whole. Instructional sequences should move from simplified contexts to complex ones and an effective sequence should move from restricted, isolated drills to wider and freer application.

How to teach it?

Like with tentative language , zooming in and three part explanations, from the beginning of year 7 students will have encountered and read many sentences and model paragraphs containing this specific skill: our booklets deliberately model the skills that we want our students to master. Teachers can begin by highlighting and drawing attention to the specific constructions within these worked examples and asking students to copy their annotations.

An instructional sequence that teaches students how to identify and analyse techniques should probably be arranged similarly to the one that I explained in this post, beginning with plenty of worked examples and, through a process of backwards fading, ending with freer application. Initial teaching should take place over a minimum of two lessons, beginning with massed practice, and then moving to distributed practice. Initial practice should involve individual sentences, moving through to paragraphs and then finally wider, freer essay writing.

This table sketches out a possible instructional sequence:

instructional sequence table

Each column in the table refers to one or more of Engelmann’s ‘six shifts of task design’. The second column, labelled ‘Instructional Choice’, includes the shift from overtised to covertised strategies and initial lessons should make all steps explicit through a detailed process of demonstration, questioning and practice as explained in this post. The second column also includes the shift from prompted to unprompted formats.

In previous posts, I have outlined specific instructional sequences for teaching other analytical skills as well specific sentence constructions. The table above is deliberately generic, hopefully giving an overview of how to apply some of the ideas from Cognitive Load Theory and Engelmann’s DI to designing instructional sequences in general.

The sequence of lessons in the table is a rough approximation: how quickly you should move along the six shifts will be determined by feedback to the teacher from student output-if success levels are high, then support can be gradually withdrawn, students can begin to complete more steps independently and the context of practice can be made more complex.

Next Post: The 6 Skills part 4: Multiple Interpretations