How to Approach a Literature Exam Question that contains an extract

Writing an essay is a composite process that is made up of multiple interdependent components. Here is a list of some of the things that a student typically needs to be able to do or know in order to succeed:

  1. They need to write fluently
  2. They need to be able to use accurate analytical sentence structures
  3. They need to use precise vocabulary
  4. They need a sophisticated understanding of the text

In addition to this, they need to know how to efficiently approach an examination question so that they answer the question fully (focussing on extract and the text as a whole), plan their answer and ensure that their analysis is conceptual, abstract and led by the big ideas within the text.

Here is the approach that I use:

STEP 1: Read the bit above the extract

This tells the student where in the text the extract has been taken from, allowing them to better understand it when they read it.

STEP 2: Read the Question and Underline the key words

This focusses them on what is actually being asked. It is worth spending a lot of time modelling how to deal with questions that have tricky wordings. Students need to be shown how to consider the key words in the broadest possible sense. If the question is How does Stevenson present the temptations faced by Dr.Jekyll, students should be shown that the focus of their essay can and probably should be much wider than one solitary character. They could write about society, Utterson, duty, transgression, Enfield, reputation, gossip and many other things that could be linked to this idea.

STEP 3: Read the extract and find stuff that fits the question

Students should find some useful evidence that fits the question and underline it. Some students may want to annotate here; others may not. It is difficult to say exactly how many pieces of evidence they should find but 3-5 pieces is often enough.

STEP 4: List Big Ideas

This is the start of the actual paragraph planning. Sophisticated essays will be led by big ideas and students should be taught these so that they are able to practice writing about them. Here are some of the possible big ideas connected with Jekyll and Hyde:

In the left-hand column are question words that these ideas could fit. One way of ensuring that students develop flexible knowledge that they can transfer to the widest possible range of relevant contexts is by demonstrating the similarity across different tasks.

STEP 5: Write Analytical Introduction

An analytical introduction (explained fully in this post) acts as a plan as well as ensuring that students keep their essay pitched at the level of big ideas. Here is an example that uses the big ideas above:

Each of the numbered, underlined parts will form a section of their essay.

STEP 6: Write about the extract

After writing their introduction, students should then write about the extract, ensuring that their focus fits the question and using the evidence that they found in STEP 3.

STEP 7: Write about the big ideas listed in the introduction.

Students may not write about all of these and this is ok: they may find that as they are writing, they are able to develop some of the big ideas in more depth than they initially realised.

Additional Points

  • While the approach above is focussed on questions with extracts, it works with questions that do not have extracts too: just remove steps 3 and 6.
  • I don’t think (you may disagree) that there is much to be gained from writing a conclusion in GCSE literature essays as you can fulfil the top band of the mark scheme without including one.

Like with most other things that we teach, this approach is most efficiently taught through explicit instruction and backwards fading, beginning with the teacher showing students how to do it before asking them to complete some then all of the steps themselves. Once students have learned the approach: practice, practice, practice!

Next Post: Teaching and Practising Big Ideas: Jekyll and Hyde

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Teaching Writing: Questions for Heads of Department

In my last post, I listed a number of questions that subject leaders could use to evaluate how they approach reading in their subject. This post will list questions that could be used to evaluate how writing is taught and approached.

  1. Do students write in order to develop and refine their ideas and opinions?

Doug Lemov calls this ‘Formative Writing’ and it is akin to Flannery O’Conner’s assertion that ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say’. (She may obviously have never said this but the internet seems to think that she did!). Writing can be a means of clarifying, honing and developing our opinions and ‘formative writing’ refers to precisely this.

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are usually asked their opinion without having been given time to think, write and therefore formulate their view.
  • Teacher expects students to answer complex questions quickly and verbally

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Everybody Writes: students are asked to write individually in silence before discussing in pairs/whole class discussion
  • Teacher circulates while students write to select good ideas to share/choose answer to show under camera and deconstruct/correct errors/challenge misconceptions

2. Do students write to practice applying a process (explain/justify/analyse)

Typically, the process or style here is dictated by examination requirements.

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are not given sufficient practice on subject specific skills
  • Students are not taught how to plan, review or edit their writing
  • KS4/KS5: students are not taught exam technique/procedural knowledge needed for examinations
  • Teachers don’t write models live in class

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • KS4/KS5: Students are taught precise, step-by-step processes to answer examination questions
  • KS4/KS5: Students regularly practice timed examination questions
  • KS3: students practice writing that builds useful knowledge and skills
  • Students are shown similarities across exam questions or writing processes to aid near transfer
  • Extended writing is broken down into components, each of which is taught, practised and then combined with others: introductions? Conclusions? Paragraph transitions? Use of evidence?
  • Students are explicitly taught and practice planning, reviewing and editing extended writing
  • Teachers model knowledge organisation using concept maps and other visual methods
  • Teachers regularly model good writing in class

3. Do students write to expand their syntactic control and practice specific sentence forms?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are not taught or asked to practice specific sentence forms or components
  • Taught sentence forms are not high-utility (they only have a very niche or narrow usage)
  • Taught sentence forms cannot be manipulated or generalised (students are asked to mimic a specific sentence form without learning how it works)
  • Students are not given enough examples to study at the beginning of instruction
  • Students are not given sufficient practice with new forms so they never become automatic and fluent
  • Instruction does not gradually move from restrictive to wider application, causing ‘splinter skills’ where students fail to apply the component to wider writing

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Students use because/but/so to develop ideas and practice vocabulary
  • Students are taught subject specific, high-utility sentence forms/writing components: despite?/appositives?/While?/Firstly…Secondly?/passive voice?/nominalisation?/colons?
  • Sentence Combining is used to teach new sentence forms
  • Sentence forms are taught though examples: students are given a maximal range of relevant examples to develop their mental model of what is being taught
  • Students are given non-examples to help refine their understanding of usage
  • Writing practice exercises are focussed on subject content
  • Practice is distributed across sufficient lessons to ensure retention, fluency and generalisation
  • Initial practice is through restrictive drills with instant corrective feedback (instructional goal here is accuracy and fluency) before widening application to paragraphs and extended writing (instructional goal here is fluency and generalisation)
  • Success Criteria/Checklists/Prompts are used to bridge the gap between drills and application to extended writing

4. Do you combine reading and writing instruction?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are asked to write about things they know little about
  • Writing processes are taught as if they are generic, transferable skills
  • There is minimal link between reading and writing materials or instruction in your subject

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Students build knowledge (ideally through reading) before being asked to complete extended writing
  • Students regularly read, discuss and deconstruct examples of disciplinary specific writing
  • Students spend sufficient time practicing retrieving and applying knowledge so that they are able to recall it when they need to write in final performances

All of the questions can be found here in a word document:

Reading in Class: Questions for Heads of Department

We all know that reading is a good thing and schools that prioritise reading across subjects are probably on the right track. While the EEF ‘Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’ report provides a good overview of what we should be doing in all subjects, here are some questions that Heads of Department could use to evaluate how reading is approached in their subject.

  1. Wherever possible, is information delivered via well organised, extended reading?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Overreliance on videos
  • Overreliance on bullet points
  • Overreliance on powerpoint (constant slide change can be a problem)
  • Overreliance on discussion
  • Unnecessary/distracting visual imagery
  • Information split across different pages/different text boxes

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Booklets/Printed Text/Textbooks
  • Reading materials with line numbers for efficiency
  • Diagrams that act as important supports for complex texts

2. Are your texts challenging?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Texts lack sophisticated vocabulary
  • Texts lack varied/complex sentence forms

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Texts contain lots of tier 2 (formal/academic) vocabulary
  • Texts contain a good range of sentence forms
  • Texts contain sentence forms that students are expected to use in writing
  • Texts contain core (essential) and hinterland (interesting and less essential) information

3. Do lessons regularly involve a high volume of reading?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Reading is not a regular part of lessons

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Reading happens in many/most lessons
  • Reading is the usual method of presenting information

4. Is reading accompanied by text dependent questions (TDQ) These are only answerable by a close reading of the text

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Questions can be answered using students’ existing background knowledge//opinions without having to read closely

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Student understanding of reading material is assessed through TDQ
  • TDQs can only be answered properly by a close reading of the text
  • All students are expected to answer TDQs
  • Where possible, teachers give instant corrective feedback: students can compare theirs to a model answer and amend

5. Do you scaffold or model answers to TDQs where necessary?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students don’t know how to answer TDQs properly
  • Student success rate is low for TDQs
  • Students do not engage in guided practice where teachers check accuracy of content and approach

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Teachers use I-We-You model to demonstrate: demonstrating annotation or finding information/demonstrate answer writing/give success criteria/demonstrate proof reading answers
  • Teachers help students select information by giving hints/prompts or narrowing focus: answer is in lines 2-23/draw a box around the first two paragraphs
  • Scaffolding and support should be the minimal amount required for success
  • Scaffolding and support should be removed as quickly as possible
  • Students should attempt questions independently after guided practice has ensured accuracy.

6. Are TDQs procedurally simple and high utility?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students receive an unnecessarily large range of different question types
  • KS4: students do not practice a sufficiently wide range of question wordings

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Students practice similar question types across texts so that they can maximally think about content not how to approach the task
  • KS4: questions match exam question style, covering all possible wordings/foci

7. Do you unlock challenging texts for students?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students read text without teacher support and struggle: too many new words/complex ideas
  • Teacher reads text then asks students to attempt questions, giving no explanation
  • Students are not expected to annotate their text/make notes

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Teacher annotates, defining new vocabulary
  • Teacher asks questions about new words
  • Teacher gives examples and non-examples for new words/concepts
  • Teacher makes links to previous content
  • Teacher makes links between different ideas within the text
  • Teacher focusses questioning on content needed for success in TDQs
  • Students are explicitly taught everything they will need for success in TDQs
  • Students are expected to make the same annotations and notes as the teacher

8. Does the teacher model good reading?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are always expected to read in silence
  • Teacher never reads aloud
  • Students take turns to read out loud but teacher never reads out loud

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Teacher reads aloud regularly
  • Teacher reads fluently with helpful intonation, emphasising parts to aid understanding.

9. Does the teacher model reading strategies?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Teacher doesn’t make the process of sense making explicit and doesn’t narrate thought process when reading

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Teacher focusses on synonyms/pronouns to track concepts across a text: who is ‘he’ here. What does ‘this’ refer to?
  • Teacher narrates though process when reading:  this bit is a bit confusing, I think I will reread it. Hold on, this contradicts the bit I read before. What does this mean? I know this is linked to XXX so does this mean…
  • Teacher asks students to predict, generate questions, clarify and summarise what they are reading

10. Do you teach pronunciation of new words? Do you correct errors?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Teacher doesn’t correct poor pronunciation/reading errors
  • Students don’t practice tricky words
  • Teacher doesn’t insist on accurate reading.

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • If complacency error when reading: teacher repeats error in surprised tone so student can self-correct it: TEACHER: it is ANTITHETIC? STUDENT: Oh yeah, antithetical
  • Teacher uses I say, you say, choral response to practice pronunciation: The word is ‘paean’, you say it…
  • Teacher segments longer words: the word is HO-ME-O-STA-TIC before asking students to practice

11. Do you vary the approach to reading according to student proficiency, text complexity and the aim of reading the text?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Approach never varies
  • Person reading out loud changes too quickly, resulting in disjointed experience
  • Teacher does not consider student proficiency, text complexity or aim of reading when choosing approach

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Teacher reads sections out loud
  • Transitions between different readers are slick and efficient
  • Students read out loud if appropriate
  • Class reads individually in silence if appropriate
  • Class stops reading after a section to check understanding
  • Class reads whole thing to get a gist before returning to close read or focus on sections.

All of the questions above can also be found here in a word doc:

What do we need to do to Improve?

Whether you are new to the profession or an experienced teacher, there is always room for improvement. Instead of looking at general areas of improvement, it is often helpful to focus on specific components of teaching. Identifying well defined, specific goals is an important first step in the journey towards improvement. This post will list some possible goals that teachers and departments could focus on. I have used this list as a form of audit whilst running CPD with teachers and heads of department, asking them to self-reflect and think about what they need to improve.

Although there will always be exceptions, teachers should probably be doing or insisting upon most of the things below.

Behaviour, Efficiency, Focus

  1. All lessons should be silent when they are supposed to be.
  2. Entrances and exits from classrooms are fast and efficient, taking minimal time.
  3. Relationships with students should be positive.
  4. Narrate the positive: use specific praise.
  5. Warm-Strict approach: consistent and predictable expectations and use of behaviour policy ‘what you permit you promote.’
  6. Choices are used to direct behaviour.
  7. All lessons begin with some kind of Do Now activity so students can begin learning as soon as they enter the classroom.
  8. Behaviour is very good in all lessons: minimal disruption; teacher and students are not interrupted.
  9. In all lessons, students are expected to complete their work to the best of their ability. Support and consequences for those who choose not to.
  10. In all lessons, students sit properly/no heads on desks/only necessary resources on desk.
  11. Lesson tasks are procedurally simple and often predictable: more time spent thinking about content. ‘what do I want them to think hard about?’
  12. Wherever possible, routines are used (how to approach reading/how to hand out equipment/how to correct work etc).
  13. Every minute is used: additional practice/quizzing/extra tasks on hand to fill any left over time.
  14. Teaching is brisk, business like and focussed.

Books and Presentation

  1. Books are neat-dates and titles are underlines/good presentation.
  2. Students have booklets or textbooks that contain everything that they will need for the lesson.
  3. Board=Paper (students are expected to make notes).
  4. Support and consequences for poor presentation, poor note taking or lost resources.

Instructional Choices

  1. Instructional choices are made based upon level of expertise of the student: novice=explicit instruction/worked examples; expert=problem solving, exam questions. Most students are novices!
  2. I-WE-YOU is used to teach almost everything. Each stage is given sufficient lesson time.
  3. Students are taught (told/explained) everything they need to succeed at a task. Procedures/strategies AND content. (I stage)
  4. Sufficient examples/non-examples are presented when teaching new content. Concrete examples to exemplify abstract ideas where possible.
  5. Complex performance (extended writing/multi-step maths procedures/playing whole piece in music/specific movement in PE) is broken down into components, each of which is taught, drilled, practiced and then combined with others.
  6. Teacher annotates reading/models/diagrams, adding examples, non-examples, further information, cues and prompts.
  7. Teacher uses precise and sophisticated vocabulary and expects students to use it too.
  8. Worked examples/models/completion problems used for new content/skills/procedures (I stage).
  9. Teacher live models in class, narrating thought process.
  10. Multiple models are used to compare and contrast: good one vs crap one etc.
  11. Identify and explain common misconceptions before they occur.
  12. Initial practice is guided and the goal here is ACCURACY(teacher help, success criteria, scaffolds, writing frames, some steps completed, half done examples) (We stage)
  13. When ready, students are given extensive independent practice with applying what they have learned to the maximal range of relevant contexts and tasks. The goal here is FLUENCY and GENERALISATION (can they transfer to the full range of relevant tasks) (no support at all) (YOU stage)
  14. Students are given sufficient GCSE examination practice in KS4.
  15. Fluency (accuracy+speed) is used a measure of proficiency: exam timings? X repetitions/sentences in 1 min? 1 page in 20 mins?
  16. Practice is distributed across many, many lessons: content/skills are overlearned until they are automatized and effortless.
  17. Regular, varied, distributed retrieval practice moving from restrictive, prompted tasks (closed qs) to open ended, unprompted application (brain dump/essay)
  18. Retrieval Practice feedback involves follow up questions, telling students extra stuff. Students write all this down.
  19. Retrieval practice used as AfL: if kids don’t know stuff: reteach quickly OR if too complex, plan and teach remedial instruction sequence across multiple lessons.
  20. Checking for Understanding as many students as possible: choral response, mini white boards, cold call, everybody writes, no opt out.
  21. Think Pair Share/Socratic Questioning/ABC questioning/format matters/stretch it for extending thinking.
  22. Questioning is focused on content and procedures.
  23. Meta-cognitive strategies taught and used.

Curriculum Planning

  1. Knowledge Organisers are quizzable and contain high-utility, core information.
  2. Explicit vocabulary instruction in all units, presenting all forms of the word and using examples sentences.
  3. Wherever possible, information is given through extended reading with text dependent questions.
  4. Students are taught how to write in your subject: sentence forms/style/tone/essay structure/exam questions.
  5. Content is chosen based on utility, challenge and exam focus.
  6. 5 year progression model for skills/knowledge is purposive: clear ladder of increased competence/increased knowledge.
  7. Assessments inform curricula change/adaptation. (QLA/areas of weakness etc).
  8. Recap/retrieval lessons are built into curriculum….revision is therefore not just a bolt on at the end of 11.
  9. Units build on each other, yr7 prepares for yr8 etc. Content is cumulatively applied.
  10. Content stretches the most able (building towards a 9); weakest are supported.

Feedback

  1. Instant corrective feedback given on new content; reduce feedback over time.
  2. Wherever possible, answers, corrections and feedback given live in class: less work and shorter feedback loop!
  3. Students mark their own retrieval practice/classroom work, taking advantage of hypercorrection effect.
  4. Whole Class Feedback when ‘marking’
  5. Whole Class Feedback informs next steps: what needs re-teaching and practicing over many, many subsequent lessons?
  6. Models (student or teacher made) used to feedback: compare work with model, difference=next steps.
  7. Probably a waste of time to regularly write extensive feedback in each book.
  8. Departmental approach is regular, visible (green pen/red pen/Feedback Lesson written as title), purposive (complacent errors= students self correct. chronic errors=reteach) and efficient.
  9. If students know very little or work is very poor, extra instruction is almost certainly preferable to feedback.

The entire list of prompts and components, including additional sections on homework, CPD and supporting colleagues can be downloaded as a word document below.

This is not supposed to be a checklist or a comprehensive list of all aspects of teaching; instead, it could be used as a prompt for self-reflection or diagnosing areas of improvement for a department.

How can you choose what to teach?

The more efficient the instructional sequence, the greater the benefit to students and this is of particular importance for students who have lagged behind their peers because, if they are to catch up, they will need to learn more in less time. But how can such a goal be achieved? Lessons need to be focused, purposive and communication needs to be clear. However, even if these conditions are met, this will not guarantee that learning will be maximised.

Generativity

DI programmes teach to the general case and teaching can be said to be ‘generative’ if it enables a learner to respond appropriately to untaught situations. In this sense, generativity is very similar to the ideas of transfer and flexible knowledge. For example, if reading instruction enables student to read untaught words, it can be said to be generative. Teaching students that the grapheme ph is a spelling for the /f/ sound can be said to be a generative approach if students can then decode untaught words that contain this grapheme.

Teaching number families in basic arithmetic is also a generative approach. For example, in addition and subtraction, 2, 3 and 5 is a number family because it can produce four basic facts: 2+3=5, 3+2=5, 5-2=3 and 5-3=2. Instead of asking students to memorise these four facts, students can learn one number family alongside the relations necessary to produce the four facts. This approach is far more efficient as it has a lower memorisation load whilst also teaching students relations that can be transferred to other number families.

Teaching students to manipulate the components of a sentence is also a generative strategy and is a much more efficient approach than learning how to copy and apply single example sentences.

Most content domains are so large and complex that it is impossible to teach everything that they encompass. There are far too many possible combinations of content, responses and contexts to teach them all individually. Because of this, we need to teach to the general case, but how can this be done?

Content Analysis

The purpose of content analysis is to identify generalizable relations within a domain and arrange the content in such a way that learning becomes as efficient as possible. Efficiency here means maximizing the amount of learning within a given time and the goal is to produce the most learning from the least amount of teaching.

A content domain is synonymous with the topic that is being learned, examples of which include computer programming, writing analytical essays, mathematics or molecular chemistry. For every possible content domain, there will be multiple ways of conducting content analysis and deciding what to teach and some ways will be more generative than others. For example, in the content domain of spelling, teachers could decide to produce word lists for students to learn based around topic themes or commonly misspelled words; however, such decisions could be problematic as they are not generalizable. Alternatively, words could be grouped and taught according to phonic or morphographic content therefore producing a highly generative approach to spelling instruction.

Content analysis is the base upon which all other pillars of curriculum design stand. Every other part of curriculum design (creating explanations, sequencing examples etc) will depend upon the content analysis. If the content analysis isn’t up to scratch, the generativity of instruction will be minimal irrespective of how well the other aspects have been designed.

So if it is so important, how do we do it properly?

The process of content analysis should involve a cycle of logical and empirical analyses:

The process should begin through logical analysis where teachers generate possible methods of organizing the content. These should then be logically compared before being empirically tested.

Here’s what this might look like in English:

Imagine you want to teach students how to write compelling pieces of persuasive writing.

Step 1: Engage and Generate

You would start by reading research into effective writing instruction, perhaps choosing to read The Handbook of Writing Research

The handbook explains how emulating model texts and teaching students how to structure their writing can be effective approaches. So, you come up with a few possible approaches:

  1. Teaching classical speech structure (Exordium, Narratio, Divisio, Probatio, Peroration)
  2. Asking students to emulate that brilliant article that you found
  3. Teaching a different persuasive structure

Step 2: Logically Compare

By logically compare all three approaches, it quickly becomes apparent that approach b is not optimal. While the article is brilliantly polemic, it does not contain a transferable structure that students can use and, despite the fact that the prose is captivating, sardonic and nuanced, its complexity will preclude all but the most able students from aping its inimitable style. While students may benefit in other ways from reading the article, it will not be the best choice here. As a result, you logically infer that a or c may be more suitable, both containing malleable structures that could be used in a wide range of relevant contexts and tasks.

Here are some possible questions you could ask while comparing approaches:

  1. Is the approach clear enough for all students to understand?
  2. Can you create and sequence sufficient examples and non-examples in order to refine and develop students’ mental representations of what you are teaching?
  3. Can the approach be practiced so that students build fluency?
  4. Does the approach allow space for creativity: is it a straightjacket or a springboard for success?
  5. Is the approach applicable to the full range of relevant contexts that student will encounter? 

Step 3: Empirically Test

Once you have finished deciding which one you will use, you will need to test whether it is efficient and generative. Just because an approach is logically generative does not mean that it will necessarily be empirically generative.

For a test to truly assess generativity, it must involve untaught content. With structuring persuasive writing, you could use Language Paper 2 Question 5 tasks that students have not encountered before so that you can see whether they can apply the approach that has been taught. To make the test as valid and rigorous as possible, you should choose an outlier style of question where the topic and task are maximally dissimilar to what is usually asked for: does the approach work with writing letters? What about topic X? You should also pay close attention to the output of the weakest students and use them as your guide as to whether the approach is successful.

Directly examining the domain

Reading research can be very helpful when beginning content analysis but so can analyzing the domain itself. Wherever possible, content should be chosen for its utility and whatever subject you teach, there will be some big ideas or concepts that can be applied to different units and topics, some even crossing traditional subject boundaries. As an example, the idea of convection can be applied widely in science and geography:

If you are interested, many of the ideas in this blog post are based upon ‘Features of Direct Instruction: Content Analysis’ Behaviour Analysis and Practice 2021. Thanks to @JonOwenDI who posted a link to the paper on twitter.

I would highly recommend Jon’s blog which has some fascinating posts about DI and curriculum design.

Checking for Understanding

CFU is really important in the I stage and the We stage of  a lesson. Students should be able to do independent practice (You stage) with minimal support and for this to happen, you need to use CFU properly.

The table below gives an overview of the different stages of the I-We-You continuum as well as how it matches ideas from Cognitive Load Theory and Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction.

I stage

You will either be explaining information or demonstrating a skill or process. CFU is important here to ensure that kids understand what you are doing.

Here is an overview of what this might look like when reading a text:

Here is an overview of what this might look like when you are modelling:

We Stage (Guided Practice)

Here is an overview of guided practice:

Features of Guided Practice:

  1. High Frequency of Questions and Overt Student Practice
  • Teachers should ask questions that are directly relevant to the new content or skill, ensuring that they choose the correct category of questions: procedural questions for processes and skill; declarative questions for content and knowledge.
  • Practice activities should be ‘overt’ in that it should be simple for the teacher to ascertain whether the student is performing correctly or not. Written work is ideal here as the teacher can move around the class to check all student responses.
  • Teachers should regularly check for understanding. This could be through oral questions or through checking written work as students are completing it.
  • If it is clear that a student or students do not understand something, the teacher should offer a repeated or additional explanation or relevant feedback as necessary
  • If it is clear that lots of students do not understand, it may be necessary to stop the guided practice and then reteach the whole class.

2) Ask lots of questions and check the responses of all students

Asking questions is an important part of teaching but if questions are to be useful, we need to think about why we are asking them. Questions can be asked to check understanding, to push students to develop or improve their answer, to consider alternative viewpoints or to help them make links between ideas. Questions also provide pupils with vital practice on what is being taught.

Most of the time it is far more efficient to teach stuff, then ask students questions about what you have taught.  Beginning with eliciting questions like ‘Who knows what The Great Chain of Being is?’  or ‘What do you think ‘hubris’ means?’ before teaching them anything is probably not that useful. The worst example of this is ‘guess what’s in my head’ where a teacher asks a question with a specific answer in mind, hoping to elicit that specific answer from the class. This guessing game can go on for ages and is almost certainly a waste of time.

What should be the focus of Questioning?

Successful teachers ask more useful questions to as many students as possible. Their questions will focus on declarative knowledge (the content that is being taught) as well as procedural knowledge (the processes that students need to follow if they are to complete tasks properly.)

Let’s have a look at some examples:

Declarative Questions:

  1. What is the subject of the first sentence?
  2. What is the noun form of ‘benevolence’?
  3. If the audience knows something that the character does not, what is this technique called?
  4. Why does Macbeth want to kill Duncan?
  5. Who is responsible for Macbeth’s demise?

Procedural Questions:

  1. How did you find the answer to that question?
  2. What are the 5 steps you should follow when answering the examination question?
  3. Explain how to write an analytical introduction
  4. What you should include in your first paragraph and why it is important?
  5. How do you know that?

Asking procedural questions is really important. Not only does it provide additional practice as students are asked to explain how they have done something, but it allows other students to understand the process that the student used to complete the task.

Here are some useful strategies:

Using Mini-White Boards

Mini-white boards are ideal for checking an entire class’ answers at once. They are especially useful for lower order, closed and factual questions, their size prohibiting answers that are anything more than a few sentences.

Cold Call

This technique helps to ensure that all students are engaged and thinking about what you have asked. Assuming you have taught them what they need in order to answer the question, this can be an equitable and appropriate means of ensuring everyone thinks of an answer, an outcome that is more difficult to achieve with traditional ‘hands up’ style questioning.

Let’s have a look at an example.

Teacher: How do you know that Ozymandias was arrogant?

The teacher should then pause, allowing everyone the opportunity to think of answer

Teacher: Abimbola……………what do you think?

Choral Response

Asking an entire class to respond at the same time means that everyone answers the question. This allows for far more practice as well as providing the teacher with more comprehensive information about whether their students have understood. Choral response questions are ideally suited to lower order, closed and factual questions. For this approach to be successful, students need to respond at the same time. If some students are faster than others, the slower students can just copy the answer they hear instead of thinking for themselves. If you are thinking that this approach sounds weird or won’t work with teenagers, you may be pleasantly surprised: typically, they enjoy choral response, especially if the teacher is enthusiastic.

Let’s have a look at an example:

Teacher: Which rhetorical technique involves three ideas in succession?

The teacher then needs to give a cue: clicking fingers, saying ‘Go’, or dropping a raised arm all work well.

Whole class: Tricolon


Building Flexible Knowledge

I have written before about ‘The Instructional Hierarchy’, a framework that splits learning into five stages:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Fluency
  3. Retention
  4. Generalisation
  5. Adaptation

This blog will demonstrate how a multi-lesson instructional sequence can be used to ensure that students are able to generalise. Such an approach can help students develop the flexibility of their knowledge so that they can transfer and apply what they have learned to a good range of relevant contexts.

If you want a more detailed explanation of how to teach appositives, this blog might be of interest.

Stage 1: Acquisition

One of the key points about acquisition is to begin with lots of model sentences, explaining, labelling and questioning the key points.

In the example below, students were asked to complete sentences 2, 4 and 5. I then asked them to write 3 more appositive sentences about these topics:

  1. Gothic Literature
  2. Asia
  3. Summer

Before they started, I gave lots of oral examples and made sure they knew a synonym for each topic (genre/continent/season etc) so that they had the knowledge required to write the sentence: the synonym would be used as the noun in the appositive phrase: The largest continent, Asia is also the most populous.

Stage 2: Fluency and Stage 3: Retention

In this second lesson, I went over the example sentences (1-5 in the example) with students, ensuring that initial teaching spanned 2 lessons. I then asked them to write their own (they were not allowed to copy mine). I gave them 3 minutes to do this. Most were able to finish in this time.

Stage 3 Generalisation and Stage 4 Adaptation.

After they had done a few lessons of timed fluency practice with simple descriptive appositives, I introduced these examples in order to demonstrate how these constructions can be adapted and used as part of extended analytical writing. I then chose some pieces of evidence from a non-fiction text we had recently read about giraffes and asked the students to complete short analytical paragraphs about each piece, following the same sentence constructions.

The next lesson involved this:

In this lesson, students began by completing 5 appositive sentences. Some sentences required retrieval of the content we are currently learning (Romantic Poetry), others didn’t. We then went over the two examples at the bottom, further reinforcing the fact that these constructions lend themselves well to analysis too.

I then asked students to help me complete these:

  1. The persona wears ‘clothes of death’
  2. The child is described as a ‘thing’
  3. The church makes a ‘heaven of our misery’
  4. Blake lists ‘God and his priest and King’

In the next lesson, we then widened the application even further by asking them to practice a reduced form of an analytical introduction, a useful approach to beginning essays. At this stage, I want the year 8s to be able to write a short version of this important essay component; in year 9, they will develop this into something that is far closer to what they will eventually be expected to include in their GCSE essays.

TGoL here is The Garden of Love by William Blake. We had previously read and analysed the poem in detail and come up with a list of 6 big ideas that the poem could involve and I asked students to write versions of the model, choosing the ideas that they liked the most and could explain convincingly.

All of the previous instructional examples involve restrictive drills; the next step was to get students to apply what they had learned to extended writing.

This was the next step:

The plan demonstrates the link between the mini-analytical introduction and the two subsequent paragraphs. I wrote this start of a model live under the camera so that students knew what to do (apologies about the squiggly crossing out-that should read ‘title/name’). At this stage, students are prompted to include what they have previously practiced to fluency in restrictive drills. (see “3+ analytical appositives” in the example above)

This example sequence moves quite quickly through the stages of learning and this is testament to the speed at which this particular class learn. Other classes may need much more practice and the instructional sequence would span many more lessons.

Teaching AQA Language 1 Question 4

Out of both AQA English Language papers, question 4 on paper 1 is the biggest and most valuable, containing more marks than any other reading question.

This blog outline some approaches that I have found to be successful.

Being successful at any form of extended writing involves being fluent (accurate and fast) in a range of different sub-skills, elements or components and I have written before about how the composite skill of extended writing can be split up and practiced .

So what are the components of this particular question? What sub-skills do students need to be proficient at if they are to write a good answer? Although students will probably need to have reached a knowledge crafting level of writing expertise to succeed, this post will focus on things specific to question 4 and the approaches assume that students have fluent transcription as well as sufficient background knowledge to access the text.

Approach 1: Start with Literature texts that they know well

Question 4 asks students to respond to a critical statement, something along the lines of: A student said ‘This part of the story, set during breakfast time, shows that Alex is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness’ How far do you agree with this statement?

Instead of beginning with unseen extracts, it can be useful to initially use literature texts so that students can focus solely on the approach needed for this question. If you have already taught the literature text, then students will already know the content that they are expected to use when attempting a Q4 style question. This essentially lowers the cognitive load as they have less information that they need to manipulate or hold in mind. If you begin with unseen extracts, students will not only have to grasp what the question is asking them (as well as the nuances that are required for high marks), but they will also have to maintain a coherent representation of the text in their minds so that they are able to select relevant information for their answer.

Here are some examples:

EXAMPLE 1: Teacher modelling

  1. Write the question on the board and give some oral examples as to how to answer it, modelling to students that they need to explain HOW the writer makes Mrs.Birling seem cold:

Mrs.B has a dismissive attitude and uses curt language like ‘impertinent’, making her seem cold. etc. etc.

2. You can then add other words to describe Mrs.Birling (red pen in the example) and give further oral examples:

Mrs.Birling is worse than cold; she is a spiteful woman who, through her disparaging language, denigrates and objectifies Eva, referring to her as ‘girls of that class’. etc.etc

Debating and discussing the key words in the statement by offering alternatives can help students to fully engage with the prompt as well as ensuring that they adopt a more nuanced and evaluative approach to the task. With this example, I came up with other words that students could use to lead their evaluation and analysis: spiteful, egotistical, opaque, sclerotic, ossified. Thanks to DiLeedham for suggesting this approach to me: it has been really successful in pushing HA kids towards full marks.

EXAMPLE 2: Guided Practice

  1. Write this second question on the board and ask students to discuss why Utterson is dull (analysis/evaluation) and how they know that (methods)
  2. Ask them for other words they could use instead of ‘dull’. In my example, all three of the red suggestions are vocabulary terms that they learned in the Jekyll and Hyde unit.
  3. They can then discuss why he is austere/authotitative/hypocritical (analysis/evaluation) and how they know that (methods)
  4. You can then ask for verbal answers checking that students engage with the prompt, analyse, refer to the text and include methods.

EXAMPLE 3: Same process as Example 2

Once these literature focussed examples have been completed, you could then compile a list of methods, demonstrating to the students that a method is any possible way that a writer expressed an idea, ranging from the microscopic and phonetic (things like ‘plosives’ and dashes) to the structural and macroscopic (things like transitions, sections and changes in focus).

Using Short Stories

You could then look at a question 4 based on a short story that you have already taught and discussed, again the advantage here being that students already know the content so they can focus on what question 4 requires them to do.

Here is an example that focusses on Helen Phillip’s phenomenal short story called ‘The Knowers.’:

The example above further outlines what q4 is asking them to do as well as continuing the idea of ‘debating/discussing the question words’ in order to encourage more nuanced responses.

As explained in this post , I would start with a model answer and annotate it to show students what they need to do:

You could then skip straight onto an unseen extract and accompanying question. A really good extract (and I can’t remember where I found it so please let me know so I can credit you!) is from ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ by T Boyle.

Here’s a question 4 for this extract:

A critic said ‘The Writer has created a tense and suspense filled scene’ How far do you agree.

After reading the extract, students can then write down other words that could be used to describe the scene: instead of ‘tense and suspense filled’, they may come up with ‘chaotic, exciting, nerve-wracking, fear-inducing etc’. You can then show another model answer, highlighting components in the first part like this:

….before asking the students to read the rest of the model, identifying the same components and using your annotations as an analogy.

Beginning with lots of modelling is always important so that students can understand exactly what it is you want them to do.

Approach 2: Break it down into Sequential Steps

While the approach above may work with higher ability students, some students will require you to break things down even further.

  1. Read and discuss a short story (The explanation below is based upon ‘Story of an Hour’ by Kate Chopin )

Short stories are often easier for students to understand than extracts. Because of this, they are ideal for the initial teaching of language questions. Although they won’t be able do this in the exam-and we all know that students who struggle with GCSE language are often those with insufficient background knowledge to understand the unseen extract that they have to read-in class, you can spend time checking for understanding, explaining and ensuring that they know what happens.

2. Focus on the question

This part of the text where Mrs Mallard reacts to the news of her husband’s death makes us feel both pity and joy for her. To what extent do you agree?

Students need to understand that the question is a prompt that directs them to find relevant evidence and steers their response. You could underline the key words and then demonstrate how to find evidence that fits them. To model this, the teacher could find things that fit ‘pity’ like this:

Showing them how to do this under the visualizer allows them to see the process in action.

You could then ask them to find things to fit ‘joy’:

As you have already demonstrated HOW to do this under a camera, they should know what they are expected to do and should be able to find relevant evidence.

Even with lower ability students, it can still be useful to get them to debate the question words by looking for evidence that supports another interpretation of the woman’s actions:

These two quotations could be seen as evidence that she is callous; equally, they could make us feel horrified rather than piteous or joyful.

With lower ability students, it is really useful to outline non-examples so they know what not to do in this question. I find that some students slip into writing advice to the character instead of engaging with the question properly:

Addressing these misconceptions before students begin writing makes it far more likely that they won’t do this!

While more able classes could cope with whole models, I would split up the answer for lower ability groups so that they are not overwhelmed:

  1. Show how to engage with the question:

Once you have shown students how to engage with the question through a model like the one above, you could ask them to rewrite it in their own words. This will be very close to mimicry but that may be an important first step on the journey towards flexible knowledge. Later practice opportunities could use the alternation strategy where students use your model as an analogy rather than something to directly emulate.

2. Create a diagram that describes the answer:

3. Show how this abstraction can be realized as writing:

You could then ask students to label the rest of a model answer, checking whether they understand what is required.

Approaches that will be important whatever the level of the class:

  1. Lots of modelling at the start so students know what to do.
  2. Lots of distributed practice, moving closer and closer to examination timings and combining practice with other reading questions too so as to build examination stamina.
  3. Asking students to check their own work for key elements: METHODS + EVIDENCE + ANALYSIS/EVALUATION

Short Stories 5

This is the fifth post in this series. You can find the others here: one, two, three, four.

Here are some more short stories that I have enjoyed reading and teaching:

Strawberry Spring by Steven King

One of King’s earlier works, this story explores a number of mysterious killings that plague a local town and university campus. It has a good twist at the end.

The Street Sweeper by Meron Hadero

Shortlisted for the 2021 Caine prize, Hadero’s story reveals the strange world of NGOs and governmental agencies and how they impact upon the country that they work within. Getu, the main character, is a translator and fixer for international aid workers and the story focusses on the invisible barriers that separate him from his employers.

That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Exploring the nature of stereotypes and culture shock, this story follows a young Nigerian who emigrates to the US only to find herself disappointed by her new country.

Reports on the Shadow Industry by Peter Carey

Carey has created a dystopian society where people chase after ‘packaged shadows’. A critique of consumerism and capitalism, it encourages us to question our obsession with material goods and the disposable nature of modern life.

We Ate The Children Last by Yann Martel

Martel has written a surreal story that not only asks questions about the limitations and ethics of science, but also explores the fickle nature of humanity.

The Frolic by Thomas Ligotti

A psychiatrist moves with his family to a new town. As he explains talks to his wife about one of his most disturbed patients, a child-abductor, they realize that they have made a big mistake.

A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka

The unnamed artist travels from town to town, attempting to impress people with his ability to starve himself. Unfortunately, his popularity is waning. Kafka’s story explores the themes of pride and artistic devotion.

The Deep by Anthony Doerr

Tom is a young boy with a heart condition that means he will die before he reaches adulthood. This often poignant story explores what it is that makes life worth living.

Marriage Lines by Julian Barnes

In this touching story of grief and loss, a recently widowed man returns to a Scottish Island where he and his wife used to spend their holidays.

Reading and Writing: A Reciprocal Relationship

If you were to choose the best writers from a group of students, I would bet heavily that they are also avid readers. Pupils who read widely and regularly are often better at writing than pupils who rarely read at all. Timothy Shannahan  points out that 70% of the variance in reading and writing ability is shared. This strong correlation points to a reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. Combining instruction, therefore, can be immensely beneficial and this is because reading and reading instruction can help pupils to improve their writing and vice versa.

But why is this? What is the link between the two modalities?

Shared Knowledge Theory

According to this framework, both reading and writing rely upon the same body of knowledge. As Steve Graham puts it:

‘We write so others will read, and we read what others write’

There are four main knowledge sources that pupils rely upon for both reading and writing:

  1. Domain Knowledge

Pupils who know more about a text are more likely to comprehend what they are reading. Knowledge is important for writing too: it is far easier to write about a topic that you know a lot about.

2. Metaknowledge

This includes knowing the function and purpose of reading and writing and how readers and writers interact. Writers, if they are to be truly effective, need to write with a reader in mind , ensuring that what they write is suitably pitched and coherent. If students are to read effectively, they need to develop and employ a high standard of coherence in that they need to care about whether a text makes sense to them or not. Similarly, if students are to write well, they need to care about and monitor the ideas that they generate and how they are turned into sentences.

3. Knowledge about Texts

Knowledge about the function and purpose of texts is crucial for both modalities. When reading, this knowledge might assist with interpretations, helping pupils to notice the tone or mood of a piece. When writing, pupils use it to ensure that what they are writing fits the task at hand. For novices, this knowledge is best built up by studying worked examples. Pupils should experience a high volume of reading at school and they should regularly deconstruct relevant exemplar texts in order to better understand what it is that makes them effective. Understanding is often predicated upon conceptual depth and breadth and this can be achieved by teaching through examples.

4. Knowledge of universal text attributes

To read and write effectively, students need to know their Grapheme Phoneme Correspondences. When reading, this knowledge allows them to decode and correctly pronounce written words; when writing, it aids accurate spelling. Reading and writing also rely upon syntactical knowledge or the rules and grammar for composing sentences and using punctuation. Finally, knowledge of text structures, formats and organisational elements like the relationships between graphics, diagrams and text underpins both modalities.

5. Procedural Knowledge

This involves knowing how to set goals, retrieve relevant information from long term memory and employ higher level strategies like questioning, drawing analogies, analysing and summarising. When reading, these can be used to aid comprehension; they can also make writing more focussed as students regulate the writing process.

Rhetorical Relations Theory

According to this theory, reading and writing are forms of communication, each involving a conversation between readers and writers. Expert writers produce texts in a constant interaction and conversation with an imaginary reader. Skilled readers do the opposite as they try to tease out or analyse the absent author’s intentions or purpose. This theory proposes that these dialogues help students to develop new insights and knowledge. By reading closely and paying attention to specific word choices and turns of phrase, a reader may acquire new knowledge about writing as they realise how a writer employs specific techniques or achieves certain effects. Similarly, writers may gain new insight into reading as they juggle mental representations, striving to compose text that will appeal to a reader.

Empirical Support

Writing Instruction Improves Reading

The theories above suggest that this is true but what is the empirical support for these ideas? Graham and Hebert (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of 95 true and quasi-experiments and here is a summary of their findings:

Spelling instruction can improve reading fluency and enhance word reading

Teaching students how to spell provides them with the necessary knowledge about how sounds and letters connect, allowing them to recognise and decode words that contain taught grapheme phoneme correspondences. The process of connecting and building from the smallest units of letters to words and then sentences is likely to provide them with further advantage when reading.

If you write about what you have read, this can help with comprehension.

Richard E Mayer, one of the authors of Learning as a Generative Activity, would explain this benefit through his SOI model of generative learning:

  1. Select relevant information
  2. Organise it into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrate it with relevant prior knowledge from long term memory

When asked to write about a text, students have to engage in all 3 stages of cognitive processing. If all three stages are successfully engaged, then it is likely that they will understand what they have read. There are, however, many things that may preclude this from happening such as a lack of relevant prior knowledge or the fact that the text contains too many unfamiliar words.

Graham and Hebert found that note-taking, answering questions, writing summaries or writing extended answers can all aid comprehension. Interestingly, they found that the benefit was greater for middle school students compared to high school students.

Reading Improves Writing

Students who read a lot tend to be good at writing but is this assumption also supported by empirical findings? Graham et al (2018) conducted a meta-analysis of 92 true and quasi-experimental studies that examined whether reading and reading instruction improved students’ writing. Here’s a summary of the findings:

Increasing how much students read can result in an improvement to their writing

Reading allows students to acquire new knowledge and understanding about how texts have been written. Students will be exposed to a wider range of sentence structures and vocabulary, some of which will rarely exist in speech or functional written communication. Similarly, students who read more will be used to thinking about and considering word choices, effects and intentions.

If students read and analyse the work of their peers, this can improve their writing

When giving feedback on extended writing, I almost always show a couple of good pieces under the camera and we discuss what makes the writing effective. This can be really powerful, demonstrating to the class that what I have asked for really is achievable, and giving a massive confidence boost to the person who is being praised. As well as deconstructing whole pieces, I often draw a star next to exceptional sentences in different books, noting the names down in my class exercise book. These pupils are asked to read out their brilliant turns of phrase and the class are invited to explain why the sentence is so effective.

Finding a Balance

A curriculum that involves lots of challenging and varied reading as well as providing lots of opportunities for pupils to practise their writing is probably on the right track. However, for a curriculum to be maximally effective, it also needs to focus upon the relevant components that make up the composite skills of reading and writing. Novice writers will benefit from increasing the volume of their reading, but they will also benefit from writing fluency practice, sentence level instruction and strategy instruction. Novice readers, who do not decode securely, will also benefit from being read to as this will help build their background knowledge which will then aid comprehension. They will, however, also need systematic instruction that focusses upon the components of reading, if they are to clear up their decoding problems.

Many of the ideas in this post are based upon ‘The Sciences of Reading and Writing Must Become More Fully Integrated’ by Steve Graham (2020)