Closer than close

In the summer of last year I came across a paper and some articles by Daniel Willingham in the Washington Post which brought to mind a nasty flashback.

A nasty flashback – the heart of darkness:

Back during my second year of teaching, I was asked to work with a Local Authority Literacy Consultant. We would trial some of the National Literacy Strategies materials on guided reading – rarely used at the time and still rarely used now in secondary schools. She was a very kind and well-meaning, experienced teacher: keen to support someone early on in their career with a top set Year 7 group who were eager to be stretched.

The focus of these sessions was to be on developing the students’ “reading strategies.”

The advisor brought in some posters about skimming, scanning, empathasing, questioning, predicting, highlighting, inference, deduction and ‘reading backwards and forwards’ (which was and probably still is a real thing).

It was 2002. It was the future. The posters included some ‘state of the clip art’ images of bright pink and bizarrely orange faced children who were reading books.


We planned together how we’d revolve each of our guided sessions around one of these skills. Our core text would be the novel Holes, by Louis Sachar. I bought into all of this. It was the future.

If you tolerate this…

We worked our way through team teaching some skimming lessons. They went ok, though I now suspect many of our top set, 11 year olds were probably wondering why we were modeling such a straightforward process in such great detail. We weren’t stretching them, but they tolerated us.

We worked our way through team teaching some scanning lessons. A bit better, but most of these students could scan for evidence in the level of text we were looking at already. Even in the easy peasy days of ‘the noughties’ the Key Stage 2 SATS were at least a little bit challenging and, it turns out, Holes was already part of the EYFS curriculum – high expectations. Again though, we were tolerated.

Then we worked our way through a lesson on close reading. I was teaching close reading. I thought I was teaching close reading. We looked at an extract about the warden who paints her fingernails with poisoned varnish, then attacks another character with them. We gave the students a number of quotations from the passage. We gave them a question: How does Sachar present the warden in this extract? We gave them some stock phrases they could use: this suggests, this implies, this heightens the impression that, this escalates the idea that, this conveys. We modeled how to use these. Then the students tried it in pairs. Then independently. Again, we were tolerated. I thought I was going great guns.

The following week we tried it again with some non-fiction. We were moving into the realms of close reading. It all fell flat. I hadn’t been teaching close reading. I didn’t really appreciate why back then and I still feel I’m working on getting my head round it.

You Oughta Know

So, what did this ‘nightmare’ inducing paper by Daniel Willingham say. Well, here’s the full text and here’s a brief summary:

There is a correlation between listening comprehension and reading comprehension. However, the differences between listening and reading, particularly the demands of decoding letter strings, make reading comprehension more complex than listening comprehension.

When listening, speakers can periodically check our comprehension either by checking our non-verbal cues or through questioning us. Writers of texts can’t do this as they aren’t generally present when we’re reading their texts and can’t amend what they’ve written to suit us if we are confused. Equally, when listening, we can ask questions of the person creating the spoken text. When we read, we can only ask questions of the text, go back and read the text again or seek answers within ourselves.

Limits in decoding skills, vocabulary and subject knowledge therefore act as barriers to comprehension.

Three overarching routines are, as a consequence, important:

  • Monitoring your own comprehension to decide when you need to re-read a text
  • Making links between the information in different sentences
  • Making links between the text and what you already know

There are numerous studies in strategies which support these routines. However, out of these 481 studies of reading comprehension strategies, only sixteen fulfilled both of the following criteria:

1. They had been peer reviewed

2. They showed a causal relationship between the strategy and the improvement

Only eight out of these sixteen strategies “appear to have a firm scientific basis for concluding that they improve comprehension in normal readers.” Just two of these have been studied in enough depth to provide an effect size. There is an issue as the effect size given by the original testers is impacted by the tests being designed by the researchers. When independent tests were used, the effect sizes were smaller. Experimenters tend to use texts and questions which are well suited to their strategies performing well. Despite this, these two strategies have a significant effect size: question generation (0.36) and multiple strategy instruction (0.32). Most research has been into individual strategies rather than comparing the strategies or unpicking which strategies might be best for which students. There is also little evidence of strategies having any impact before 3rd grade (Year 4). When students’ working memories are focused on decoding, there will be little space left for comprehension strategies.

Willingham’ view, which he’s expressed in a range of publications since is that, based on the evidence he’s seen, that “Reading strategy programs that were relatively short (around six sessions) were no more or less effective than longer programs that included as many as 50 sessions.”

Willingham describes reading strategies as tricks rather than skills. They are shortcuts to a surface understanding of a text. They have impact – though it’s unnecessary to spend weeks practicing them. However, as every text is different, comprehending each text actually requires the reader to hold the vocabulary and the background knowledge to unlock that text.

Where do we go now? Where do we go?

Every other year or so the makers of shaving razors produce an updated version of their product.


The risk here is that I suggest a way forward, then keep adding extra reading razors to enable students to read close, closer than close, closer than you could ever imagine. If I do this, apologies. This is my current best attempt and it’s heavily influenced by Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov.

Firstly, let’s go back to the holes in my Holes lessons. At the time, I thought that the reason these worked, whilst the subsequent non-fiction lessons failed was because the novel was pitched at the right level and the non-fiction was pitched too high. Perhaps counterintuitively, I now think the opposite. There was less to say about the Holes extracts than the non-fiction, the students weren’t learning any new vocabulary from the section of Holes which would help them in the short or the long term and they were unused to having to struggle with texts so, when it came to the non-fiction, with its odd ways, the tricks they’d learnt weren’t enough.

Instead, I now believe the focus needs to be on:

1. Exposing students to challenging texts on a wide range of topics in order to increase their background knowledge

2. Selecting texts which exemplify excellence and basing your planning around these

3. Implicitly and explicitly teaching tier two vocabulary and subject specific terminology

4. Increasing the amount students are thinking and writing about both the content and crafting of texts

This is how we do it:

Each Key Stage 3 lesson will begin with a ten minute Fluency Fix session. This will incorporate:

  • Explicit vocabulary teaching using a mixture of tier two words which relate to the core text and other texts that students will be studying that half term.
  • The learning of quotations from the core text to be used in the end of term exam.

Over the coming term in Year 7, alongside studying Beowulf, students will have a weekly close reading lesson and a writing lesson. This term’s close reading sessions will focus on narratives. In subsequent terms, we’ll move on to non-fiction. For the next six weeks, we’ve chosen extracts from the following texts and put them in this Wild Adventures Anthology:

  • Heart of Darkness – a narrative featuring a journey through challenging terrain
  • Lord of the Flies – a narrative featuring two contrasting characters in a challenging landscape
  • Treasure Island – a narrative featuring a threatening character
  • Jaws – a narrative featuring a threatening creature
  • Witch Child – a narrative featuring a wonderful discovery
  • Metamorphosis – a narrative featuring an increasingly desperate situation

We’ve selected these as they incorporate a range of complex vocabulary. They’re also great for exploring both language and structure.

In order to try to maximize the impact of these text choices, we’ve prepared teaching scripts in the style of those in Reading Reconsidered. We’ve used the comments function on Word to highlight where questions should be used to draw out meaning from the text. Here’s the document for the Heart of Darkness session. These scripts incorporate a number of readings of the text – conveying to students that they shouldn’t expect to understand the text on their first reading. We’ve mixed the following types of reading:

1. Contiguous reading – working through the text from start to finish

2. Leapfrog reading – jumping through the text to explore a specific image, theme, character

3. Line by line reading – analysing a part of the text in great detail

During the first reading, opportunities are taken for implicit vocabulary teaching.

Following on from this, the other readings feature text dependent questions, moving from establishing the literal meaning of parts of the text to analysing the deeper meaning of the language or structure used by the writer.

We’ve used this grid from the Reading Reconsidered training to devise these questions. This was a real eye-opener for me as I’ve had a tendency in the past to jump to analysis too quickly, before students have understood the literal meaning. We’ve also built in some of the question types Andy Tharby has provided in this post on an approach to improving analysis. Finally, in some of the more analytical questions, we’ve used more tentative language to open up a culture of error and exploration.

I’ll keep you posted with how much closer this gets our students.

Fluency Fix – An Approach to Vocabulary Teaching

Last year, we introduced a Word of the Week programme during tutor time. As you’d expect, systematically introducing only one word a week across the whole academy during tutor time had a very limited impact on the quality of students’ writing and reading. Having said this, it did raise the profile of this aspect of literacy with all staff and students and it enabled us to try out some of the strategies from Isabel Beck’s work in her books, Bringing Words to Life and Creating Robust Vocabulary. These have helped us to think through and begin to implement a new programme which we’re calling Fluency Fix. 

Beck’s principles are outlined in this post on the Word of the Week programme. These blogs from Josie Mingay, David Didau and Doug Lemov are great reads about methodologies for explicitly teaching vocabulary.

Particularly important in influencing our planning for the new programme was Josie’s reminder of Graham Nutall’s three conditions leading to effective processing;

  • Strength – multiple exposures to new information (at least 3 or 4 within a limited time) is essential in order to embed knowledge
  • Depth – ensuring students think ‘hard’ about new information so as not to allow it to just hover on the surface, instead challenging learners to wrestle with new ideas and concepts to ensure they are deeply rooted
  • Elaboration – providing opportunities for learners to make connections and associations with previously acquired knowledge, in order for this to ‘latch’ onto something

I don’t want to spend long on theory here though as the intention of this post is to introduce the Fabulous Five Programme, seek peer critique and invite other teachers or English departments to become involved in its development if they wish.

Fluency Fix introduces students to five, tier two words at the start of each week.

We’ve been piloting it in Year 11 at the moment and are initially focusing on abstract nouns, verbs or adjectives relating to emotions. We’ve begun with these as, in addition to believing in the importance of broadening the students’ vocabulary generally, pragmatically these words will help the students in responding as a character in Question 1 of the iGCSE English paper and communicating their emotional response to language in both Question 2 and the unseen poetry question in their Literature exam.

When we introduce the programme into other year groups, we will combine these kinds of words with tier two words identified in the texts the students are covering as part of the curriculum.

The process occurs in six steps at present. Each stage has a common framework so that students become familiar with the process and only need to focus on developing their knowledge of the new vocabulary rather than what to do. Below is a description of each stage, the framework and an example.

Stage one is an introduction of the week’s words, focusing on familiarity with the definitions, pronunciation, graphemes, morphemes and other methods of memorising the spellings.

Fabulous Five – Session 1 Framework

Session 1 Aggravation-Optimism

Stage two focuses on developing memories of the meaning of the word. It is a cloze exercise incorporating a short passage which uses all five of the words and a comprehension question about the impression given of a character or event as a result of the use of the words.

Fabulous Five – Session 2 Framework

Session 2 Aggravation-Optimism

Stage three requires students to apply their developing knowledge of the meanings of the words. They answer a range of questions, incorporating the words (in different forms) into full sentence answers.

Fabulous Five Session 3 Framework

Session 3 Aggravation-Optimism

Stage four involves students writing an extended, directed piece, using all five of the words.

Fabulous Five Session 4 Framework

Session 4 Aggravation-Optimism

A further exposure occurs through a weekly spelling test of the words.

Fabulous Five Homework Frame

Homework Aggravation-Optimism

As we’ve moved through the weeks, we’ve been weaving words from previous weeks in to these exposures so as to increase the likelihood of students retaining the words in their long term memories. We’ve also been looking into how we can best utilise online tools like Memrise and Quizlet, as Andy Tharby discusses here. Finally we’ve set the expection that  students use these words in their speech and writing to embed the vocabulary through more frequent usage.

I’d be really interested, first of all, in what you think of this approach to vocabulary teaching and the frameworks we’ve developed. Do you have amendments you’d suggest or tweaks you think we should make? Should we introduce further steps or do you have other frameworks you think would enhance our work. Lastly, if you like the way this is heading and would be introducing it or something very similar in your faculty, would you be interested in sharing the workload of setting it all up across five year groups on a Dropbox or Google shared drive? Let me know on Twitter (@NSMWells) or via e-mail (Nick.Wells@Swindon-Academy.Org)

Reviewing the situation. 

‘”There are a good many books, are there not, my boy?” said Mr. Brownlow, observing the curiosity with which Oliver surveyed the shelves that reached from the floor to the ceiling.

“A great number, sir,” replied Oliver; “I never saw so many.”

“You shall read them if you behave well,” said the old gentleman kindly; “and you will like that, better than looking at the outsides…”‘

In my previous post, I mentioned I’d been on the Reading Reconsidered training, led by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Maggie Johnson. The two days were packed full of challenge: challenging practices and challenging practises. 

Nobody ever writes “Six things I know about…” or “Six interesting facts about…” or “Six of the greatest….of all time” posts. Five’s doing alright. Ten’s overexposed. Six gets a bad press. So, in the spirit of reconsidering and reviewing situations, here are my “Six Things I Reconsidered about Reading” whilst on the training. 

1: Read-Write-Discuss-Revise

Early during day one, Doug made a staggering confession. After recounting a significant part of the plot of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, he reavealed that as a university undergraduate he had (be prepared for a shock) gone to the seminar focusing on this play without having done the required reading. 

Apart from shattering all my illusions about Doug, the real revelation here was that the pattern we often use in English lessons, from the primary classroom all the way through to the university seminar room, read-discuss-write, reduces levels of student accountability. We read, we talk about texts (though often the issues in the texts rather than the texts themselves) then we write about them. This means it’s possible for some students to understand the gist of a text, take a back seat during the discussion phase and then make a decent fist of writing about the text because of what they’ve picked up from other people in the room. This is ok if you’re preparing students for coursework, but a really bad move for exam classes. 

I recall fairly vividly the rumor circulating during my own first year at university that there was a set of detailed plot summaries on the third floor of the library for all of the core texts. These were probably the most well read texts amongst my fellow students. I may have used them once. 

Doug was keen to point out that sometimes read-discuss-write and other similar sequences have their place, but in terms of increasing the ratio of thinking and participation in classrooms, shifting to read-write-discuss-revise is a good move as students are having to think for themselves before gleaning ideas from others. 

2: Plan from the text

It may seem unsurprising to people outside the world of English teaching, but everything we did over the two days was about drawing implicit and explicit meaning from texts and everything was rooted in the texts. 

When you look in many English text books, there are superfluous activities which can detract from reading the texts themselves – activities designed to lead to empathy with a character, activities designed to help students consider the relevance of social issues, woolly and fluffy activities which pad out lessons in the worst possible way. Make a Facebook page for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, write a letter from Beowulf to his Danish pen friend, hold a conference call between Eva Smith and the other women who were protesting about the conditions at Mr Birling’s factory with success criteria including the use of AFOREST devices. 

The reading strategies we experienced and watched videos of during the training were the opposite of this. All meaning was drawn from the texts being read. All planning was done with the texts as the starting point. 

3: Read aloud and rehearse reading aloud – Control the Game

We spent about twenty minutes preparing for and then practicing reading aloud with a class using the Teach Like a Champion technique, Control the Game. It seems rather stupid now to type these words out as it’s such a key part of my job but I’ve never, even in my training year, practiced reading aloud with other teachers and had feedback. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Modeling reading ourselves and hearing students reading whilst preempting or addressing decoding issues, fluency issues or issues with expression are at the foundations of what we do. 

I think there’s an assumption that these are so basic that anyone can do them. Almost anyone can do them, but it’s only when you really  consider them and practice them that you can maximize their impact. If we want, as English teachers, to be experts then it’s worth working together on these aspects of our work. This is where we could make real marginal gains. 

4: Implicitly and explicitly teach vocabulary 

I’ve written previously about explicit vocabulary teaching here. Despite having read Isabel Beck’s work on vocabulary, I haven’t set aside the time to fully think through implicit vocabulary teaching  – teaching new and challenging words just prior to or during the study of the text. 

Having tried this since the training, the first challenge is in selecting the words to focus on in the text the students are exploring. Beck suggests we should select words which:

  • Don’t feature regularly in oral communication
  • Aren’t domain specific
  • Aren’t text specific and therefore will be revisited in reading or could be revisited in writing

The Reading Reconsidered team advise we then work out which of these words we will:

  • Work on the pronunciation of as, when this is cracked, understanding will follow
  • Provide a definition for
  • Provide a definition for and opportunities to practice
  • Selectively neglect 

Again, these may seem like easy decisions on the surface and for a one off lesson. However, if you begin to think about which words you’ll focus on from each text in order to make connections between texts on your curriculum, it requires a much deeper level of planning. 

5: Questions – move from questions about explicit to implicit meanings

One of the most joyous moments of the two days was experiencing Maggie Johnson modeling a close reading session. It was inspiring. 

We focused on this short extract from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. 

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.”

What Maggie did was to combine the Control the Game reading we’d tried out previously with a “Leapfrog Read” where we jumped to the various references to the sun and a “Line by Line” read focusing on explicit and implicit meanings of some of the figurative language in the text. Though she pointed us to specific parts of the text, all of the thinking was ours and we were often made to write or think before discussing. Kris Boulton asks here whether this is common in English classrooms and I’d say that parts of it are, but I’ve never seen them done so expertly. 

The biggest thing I’ll take away from this session though is the shift between questions about explicit meaning and implicit meaning. It’s made me rethink and tighten up the way I structure questions about texts already. 

6: Consider implications for teachers outside of the English department

There are obvious implications of Reading Reconsidered for English faculties. They should be fairly clear for most other subjects too. However, I’ll redirect you to Kris Boulton’s blog as it takes you through his response to a question I asked him about subjects in which the relevance may be less obvious. 

There are a good many books in a good many subjects. Our students should read widely across these subjects and the strategies offered by Reading Reconsidered do, I believe, offer a way of moving deeply into the texts between the covers. 

Reconsider Yourself at Home

“What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once — a parish child — the orphan of a workhouse — the humble, half-starved drudge — to be cuffed and buffeted through the world — despised by all, and pitied by none.”

Only a few paragraphs into his novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens establishes his protagonist as being representative of those children who, through the  circumstances of their birth, the state of Victorian society and the treatment of others, were destined to a life of economic, social and cultural poverty. 

But our Olivers, our Olivias, our Olgas and our Omars, they’re alright aren’t they? We have higher expectations now. We have more schools than ever before which are judged to be good and outstanding by Ofsted. The government says. Even Sir Michael Wilshaw says – and he definitely has high expectations. 

Yet, according to Barnado’s, the British children’s charity, “There are currently 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s over a quarter of all children.” Worryingly, on the same page of Barnado’s website, they tell us:

  • “Only 48 per cent of 5 year olds entitled to free school meals have a good level of development at the end of their reception year, compared to 65 per cent of all other pupils.  
  • Less than half of pupils entitled to free school meals (just 34 per cent) achieve 5 GCSEs at C or above, including English and Maths, this compares to 61 per cent of pupils who are not eligible.”

So, at both ends of our system of compulsory schooling, statistically there are still significant educational inequalities. Though many of these children won’t be bound by these statistics, in too many cases the underlying issues affect students as they move through adulthood and linger into old age. Although the numbers are fewer, too many, like Oliver, are still left “badged and ticketed” to fall into their “place” in society. 

In their 2013 paper for ASCL, “What is Preventing Social Mobility? A Review of the Evidence,” Francis and Wong identify the following two factors as playing a key roll in generating the attainment and opportunity gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students in the U.K. 

1) The high level of educational and social segregation in our system.

2) The facilitation of those with better financial and social capital to use this to secure advantage for their children.

Captured between these two areas, Francis and Wong list:

  • School (particularly teacher) quality and dis/advantage. 
  • Educational segregation through private and selective schools and through setting or streaming within schools. 
  • Identity and self-fulfilling prophecies. 
  • Curriculum. 
  • Work experience and school to work routes. 
  • Access to higher education. 

Addressing these issues requires action at system, school and teacher levels. 

Last week, I had the privilege of spending two days training with the Teach Like a Champion team – Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Maggie Johnson – as well as welcoming Doug to Swindon Academy, the school where I teach. I remember, on first reading Teach Like a Champion, being seriously impressed by the analysis Doug and his team had carried out in terms of what the most effective teachers in their school systems were doing to secure rapid progress, particularly for students from deprived backgrounds. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, this video is a useful starting point. 

When we were beginning to develop our teaching model at Swindon Academy, it struck us that there would be great benefit in having a shared language of teaching which we could use with both staff, during their coaching and CPD sessions, and students during their lessons. We could also see that the strategies tied in exceedingly well with the mastery curriculum model we were moving towards. Most importantly, we agreed with Lemov’s message that the strategies he identifies in the book are a toolkit to draw from, rather than a prescriptive list of methods which must be used robotically and unthinkingly in every lesson. Teachers must, whilst aligning themselves with the vision and ethos of their school, be seen as professional thinkers who make choices about the best strategies to support their students’ to make progress. 

I think this also links to what Doug alludes to in this post about school leaders making professional judgements in terms of what’s going to be of greatest benefit to the students of their school at that point on their developmental journey. It’s also why I’m really proud of what Doug says in the video at the end of this post about what he saw happening in our school. 

I’ll be writing another post soon about the ways in which we’re looking to weave in the strategies from Reading Reconsidered with the same sense of mission – not one born out of the pity which Dickens suggests people could/should have for Oliver, but rather one based on a belief in the benefits of engaging all of our students – whatever their background – in the richness of the English language and the wonder of English literature. 


 

The Higher You Build Your Barriers – Analyse This 2


In the previous post in this sequence, I established the premise that, in the literature classroom, reading is essentially an intellectual, emotional and/or behavioural reaction to text(s) and that, when we’re teaching students to study literature, we’re teaching them factual and/or procedural knowledge which will enable them to more successfully communicate these reactions.

Now I want to look at the potential barriers to students communicating a knowledgeable reaction in the form of an analytical piece of writing at KS3 and beyond. As this is such a huge topic, my aim, in this instance, is to categorise these barriers rather than list every possible permutation. I also don’t intend to explore any solutions here just yet. Instead, I’ll be saving these for a later post in this sequence. To help structure my thinking I’ll be splitting the issues up into two core categories.

Hands up please if you think I’ve missed something. 

Text based barriers relating to:

  • The mechanics of reading 
  • Emotional impact 
  • Behavioural impact 
  • Intellectual impact

Task based barriers relating to:

  • Question type
  • Mark scheme
  • Specimen exemplar responses from exam boards

Text based barriers:


At the most fundamental level, this set of barriers includes students having gaps in their phonic knowledge on arrival at secondary school, not having reached fluency in their decoding skills and making little use of expression or variation of tone in their reading. If these more basic problems are still lingering at the end of Key Stage 2, then they clearly need to be addressed early on during Key Stage 3 for students to make any sense of the more complex literary texts they’ll encounter during their GCSE years. 

Beyond the foundations, these mechanical barriers also encompass limited levels of perseverance with potentially unfamiliar or archaic language; the possibility that students may be reading a text written in a language in which they are not yet proficient; and difficulties caused by the complex, syntactic sequencing often used in poetry and some (particularly older) prose texts. 

Barriers relating to students’ emotional, behavioural and intellectual reactions can, of course, be caused by a range of specific educational needs which make, for example, empathising with characters in a text or cognitively processing a text’s meaning much more challenging. 

In addition, some students have limited vocabulary with which to either comprehend or express subtly different feelings or actions. Comprehension and communication of comprehension can also be stifled if students don’t know much about the themes or the concepts which a text focuses upon. 

A lack of exposure to a range of cultural, social or emotional experiences inhibitting empathy with the narrator or character(s) can prevent or limit an emotional reaction. Conversely, students can be unwilling to open up about emotions or actions as a result of past social experiences they have had, such as mockery at the hands of their peers. 

When students have little knowledge relating to the possible impacts of choices of forms, structures and figurative or rhetorical language, it can limit their reaction going beyond the emotional or behavioral. This issue can also restrict their ability to express why they or others may have had these reactions to a text in the first place.

A lack of knowledge linked to social, historical and cultural contexts can prevent students expressing how or why texts are characteristic of their time or how they break away from traditions or conventions. It can also prevent students understanding why characters have acted in certain ways if they deviate from the manner in which they would act themselves as a result of differences in culture. 

Task based barriers:


As English teachers we are, in the majority of cases, graduates of English literature and/or language degree courses. Consequently, I’m sure we’d all like to think, we have a clear sense of how analytical writing should be structured and crafted. The ideal in our minds, most likely, takes the form of an academic essay – start to finish. 

A number of the examination questions which students have to answer for the latest GCSE exam specifications, though, require them to write something more like a mini-essay or ‘essay-let.’ This is in part because of the wording of the questions themselves and in part because of the time students are given to respond in the exams. 

At times, therefore, I think there is a mismatch between what we have in mind in terms of structuring academic writing and what is required for a successful response from the students in the form of a high grade. This is more so the case in English than in English Literature, but I believe the issue exists in both qualifications. 

To exemplify this, in AQA’s GCSE Specimen Literature Paper 2, students have to complete this question:

In both ‘Poem to my Sister’ and ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’ the speakers describe feelings about watching someone they love grow up. What are the similarities and or differences between the ways the poets present those feelings?

Students’ responses to this question are worth a maximum of eight marks from a paper worth 94 marks in total. The time allocated for the paper is 2 1/4 hours. If you were to allocate the same proportion of time to each question as the proportion of the overall marks it is worth, then this question should take just under 12 minutes. Although the two unseen poems referenced in this question are nowhere near as rich in language or as structurally dense as Ozymandias, by Shelley, or Exposure, by Owen, (two of the pre-studied poems the same paper may also include a question about) and although the students will have read the first poem in order to answer the previous question, 12 minutes seems very little to respond to a question which could, if more time were given, potentially lead into a full analytical, comparative essay. 

The time allocation for this question will clearly mean students will produce a less than full response to these relatively simplistic poems. One wonders, therefore, whether it’s a worthwhile task or whether it’s actually been included in the paper to fulfill a government requirement, especially as it’s likely to lead to the teaching of a more simplistic form of response. 

Potentially exacerbating the issue of which structure to use for each question are the bullet points which exam boards provide in some of their tasks. These are, in the most part, designed to support students with basic prompts relating to the content of their responses. However, they can actually act as a barrier if students use them as a guide to structuring and organising their answer. 

In the same specimen AQA paper as the poetry question we’ve just looked at, students are assessed on their knowledge of a modern prose or drama text. One of the options for the question relating to An Inspector Calls is:

How and why does Sheila change in An Inspector Calls?

Write about:

  • How Sheila responds to her family and the Inspector. 
  • How Priestley presents Sheila by the way he writes. 

This question is odd for a number of reasons. Firstly, of the twenty four questions in this section of the paper, this is one of only four that don’t mention the writer’s name. What’s stranger still is that this is the only question which, prior to the bullet points, treats the events of the text as if they’re reality and the character as a real person rather than a literary construct. The vast majority of questions in this paper begin with the stem, “How does (insert the writer’s name) present/explore…?” The three other questions which don’t mention the writer of the text ask about the importance of a particular feature, theme or character. 

The reason this is important is because a student could answer the question above about Sheila well within the terms of the question itself by giving a narrative based response but they would be penalized in terms of the mark scheme and the bullet points as they would be less likely to have discussed the effects of the writer’s choices. I may be wrong, but I think this would restrict them to level one of the mark scheme and no higher than five marks. 

Protecting students against this is presumably why the bullet points have been included. They’re designed to remind students of the other aspects of the mark scheme, but it is plausible that this would be too late. It’s also quite possible that he bullet points in the Sheila question could actively promote a way of thinking which risks taking students further away from the original question. The first bullet could quite feasibly lead students to discuss Sheila’s separate responses to the other members of her family, without making these relevant by linking each back to the way it results in the changes to her world view or sense of morality. The second bullet point finally suggests to students that they should view Shiela as a literary construct, crafted by Priestley. However, there is no reference to changes, alterations or shifts in her character in the last bullet point and my concern is that this creates an unnecessary barrier to students crafting an effective response. The question itself has prompted one way of thinking and therefore writing. The bullet points suggest a different approach. 

The question itself should lead towards success within the terms of the mark scheme. In this, and other cases, it does not. 

One reason why teachers revert to teaching a PEE/PEEL/PEEZ style structure as a basic form for structuring the parts of a response is that you can feel like you’re wangling the different parts of the acronym around to address the different parts of the mark scheme. This, you might think, mitigates against a dodgy question like the one about Sheila. 

There are four Assessment Objectives covered in the English Literature qualification:

AO1 – Read, understand and respond to texts:

  • Maintain a critical style and develop an informed, personal response.
  • Use textual references, including quotations, to support and illustrate interpretations. 

AO2 – Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate. 

AO3 – Show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written. 

AO4 – Use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect with accurate spelling and punctuation. 

PEE covers some of this, but not all. In the next post in this sequence, I’m going to look at where PEE comes from and pull some responses to literature from people who’ve not been taught such a structured response to see what they do.