We bring the stars out

In the AQA GCSE English Language qualification, Section B of both exam papers features a writing task. Paper 1 is either a descriptive or narrative task whilst Paper 2 requires students to write a letter, newspaper article, essay, leaflet or speech. On the whole, in 2017, our Year 11 students performed better in the non-fiction than the creative task. I know some people are of the view that the question (the nasty one with the bus) was partly to blame for their students’ weaker responses but I’m not willing to accept that. 

Describe a time when your bus journey was actually stressful rather than just a bit tedious.

And we can do this until we pass out. 
Our cohort walked into their exams  better prepared for writing the non-fiction response, in large part, because we’d given them a clearer strategy. We’d shared and pulled apart more models, they had a clearly defined method for dealing with the question, they’d frequently and deliberately practiced elements or the whole of the task. Almost every week we had the whole year group in the exam hall to sit a non-fiction question with a short input. Then our Head of English and I would sit and mark all the responses before preparing whole cohort feedback and tweaking the planning for the following week. It worked. 

Surely we’d done the same with the narrative and descriptive tasks. You’d think, but at Christmas of Year 11, the cohort had been better at the creative task and the non-fiction had been a relative flop.  

Describe a time when you felt like a one eyed mangy cat because you hadn’t taught something as well as you might.

We flipped our focus and arguably went too far the other way. 

What I want to explore here is a method of using what we did with paper 2 and developing it for paper 1. In the first instance, I want to look at planning. 

Check out my visual, Check out my audio:

The following is taken from the exam board report from the June 2017 series:

“Unfortunately, there was also considerable evidence of a lack of planning. Occasionally, spider diagrams were used, which may generate ideas but do not help with organisation or cohesion, whilst other ‘plans’ consisted of mnemonics, usually linguistic techniques the student intended to include regardless, which may aid some of the less able students but tends to stifle the creativity of the most able. A lack of planning also resulted in unnecessarily lengthy responses, where the more a student wrote, the greater the deterioration in ideas, structure and accuracy. Many students would have benefitted from a quality rather than quantity approach: having the confidence to take time to plan, and then craft a shaped and structured response in two or three sides, with time at the end to revise and improve. This would certainly have helped those who started ambitious narratives but managed to get no further than establishing the two characters because they set out to achieve the impossible in the time given.”

These kinds of comment are fairly typical in examiners’ reports. Unfortunately, when I asked AQA if they had released or would be releasing any examples of really effective responses with efficient and impactful plans, they said that their examplar responses didn’t include plans as these aren’t marked. I think this is a shame as it’d be useful to see what the exam board believes to be an effective plan. 

A big part of me feels that planning primarily makes an examiner more likely to assume a student has written well. Plans are a proxy for better writing, like handwriting. They act like a suit at an interview. 

In the long term, what actually makes students better at crafting effective narratives and descriptions is a well mapped out curriculum, moving students through the composition, structuring and connecting of sentences and paragraphs and the development of a range of mental models of effective creative writing. I’ve just started reading The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler and would encourage you to do the same if you’re looking for a model of how to do this. 

There are, though, students who arrive at the start of year 11 who don’t have these tools at their disposal. We have to ask ourselves what we can do for these students. Could a clearly structured planning process with modelling and exemplification of how this could transfer into a complete composition provide them, in the short term, with a better grade and, in the long term, a better grasp of how to structure their writing? Perhaps. And because the answer was perhaps, I was willing to give it a go. 

When I asked for a suggested planning model on Twitter, a few very helpful people came forward. Some suggested strategies which were more useful for the non-fiction writing. Some suggested strategies which were great for questions where there was a linked image but I was looking for something which could work for the question with the image and the one without. Some suggested strategies which were focused mainly on literary or linguistic techniques and I wanted a model which primarily supported students to plan the structure of their writing. 

Describe a time when things didn’t go according to plan.

My students needed a shortcut. What was required was something that could be done swiftly, within about ten minutes; something that worked for both descriptive and narrative writing tasks both with and without linked images; and something where students believed that the planning process would genuinely improve their writing – it’s not a straightforward process convincing students with gaps in their knowledge from the past that spending time on part of an answer which isn’t even marked is a worthwhile use of their time in an exam. 

We about to branch out. 

Luckily, @JoanneR85 (I’m afraid I don’t know her actual name at the time of writing) got in touch with a suggestion I’m working on with my two groups. Her suggestion was something she called:

  1. Drop
  2. Shift
  3. Zoom in
  4. Zoom out

I’ve added two additional steps to this so far. It’s now become:

  1. Thoughts/Feelings + Contrasts
  2. Motif
  3. Drop
  4. Shift
  5. Return/Zoom in
  6. Zoom out and leave

The first two steps here are intended to help students create a thread through their writing, whilst steps three to six provide them with a strategy for planning out, in note form, the phases in their writing.

They begin by dropping the narrative voice into the text.

Then they shift to another time, contrasting mood or alternative place based on the stimulus. 

The third step is to return to the original point in time or location and mood and/or zoom in on a tiny detail in a way that illuminates the character’s feelings. 

Finishing off involves zooming out and leaving the location. 

The motif must appear at a number of points in the text and at least twice – once towards the beginning and once at the end.

Here are two worked examples: one for a description based on an image and one for a narrative based task. 

Worked example 1:

Write a description of a forest based on this image. 

Thoughts/Feelings + Contrasts. 

  • Mystery/Creepiness/Confusion vs Clarity/Understanding
  • Sadness/Upset/Depression vs Happiness/Contentment 

Motif

  • Mist – linked to confusion
  • Red flowers – linked to poppies/remembrance 
  • Stream – reflectiveness

Drop in 

Early morning make the forest seem dreary, tall trees – personify like soldiers, expect singing birds but none there, rotting leaves, autumn – all is beginning to die, mention the motif of the red flowers, link to poppies, grandfather has just died. 

Shift 

Six months earlier, bright day, walking through the forest with your grandfather, describe him physically and one thing you remember him doing that shows what he was like as a person. Needs to be a happy memory to contrast. Make it on Remembrance Day so he’s wearing a poppy. 

Return and/or zoom in 

Back in the present. Dreary again, return from my thoughts. Zoom in on a twig and describe in detail – size, pick it up and texture, strength, should you step on it and break it or leave it and move on?

Zoom out and leave 

Look around again and notice the red flowers. They’re beginning to lose their petals, crumpling up at the edges. A bird begins to sing in the background. You leave the scene to return home. Describe the mist as if it’s wrapping itself around you – protective but confusing.

Worked example 2:

Write a story that begins with the sentence: ‘This was going to be a brilliant day, one of those days when it’s best to jump out of bed because everything is going to turn out perfectly.’

Thoughts/Feelings + Contrasts

  • Optimism/Hope vs Pessimism
  • Anticipation/Excitement vs Gloom/Disappointment 

Motif

Broken baby Jesus from a Christmas crib scene. 

Drop

Flashback to priest’s first Christmas as a priest. Pews heaving. Describe two members of the congregation. Grandmother holding a baby – the first the priest had baptised. Baby Jesus in the crib freshly painted. Looks vivid, glorious. 

Shift

Flash forward. Priest in his church looking around at Christmas time alone ten years later. Incense smell, candles burning – lights dim. Sense of emptiness. 

Return and/or zoom in

He picks up the Jesus figurine. It’s cracked, paint peeling, yellowing. Link it to the child from before who tragically died last week. He’d led the funeral service. 

Zoom out and leave

Describe the church as he walks out – empty pews, now sounds. Still holding the figurine. Drops it in the bin before leaving the church for the last time. 

They say hello, they say hola and they say bonjour

Describe a time when you were optimistic about the future.

I introduced this planning strategy to my classes this week by sharing each step. 

I modelled a step with one image, then gave the students two minutes to complete the step with another image, before moving on to the next step. 

This meant that the planning lasted twelve minutes in total which would leave students plenty of time to write their responses. The benefit, hopefully, will be that they have cognitive space to focus on how they’re writing rather than what they’re writing. Fingers crossed, the overarching structure will be much tighter too. 

I’ll let you know how they got on with their writing soon. 

8 comments

  1. davowillz · September 30, 2017

    I’m rather amazed and impressed by your whole cohort approach using the exam hall. I have to say I’m not entirely convinced by the better planners being better writers. It was a comment also made by the wjec however it is not something those I know who marked the exam necessarily agreed with. I think the best writers have embedded within their minds clear narrative structures as they have read so much. For the weaker writers who tend not to have read enough planning can really cost them as they have to think more about each sentence they write. My own focus last and this year has been on the CD borderline (we still have letters in Wales) and my structure for all pupils is therefore far simpler: 1. Describe a character (10 sentences)
    2. Describe the setting (10 sentences minimum)
    3. Describe what happened – the rest
    In total they had to write 2 sides, but I didn’t care which order they described character or setting. For practice I always had 7 different sentence types/techniques on the board for them to include. I used a similar approach with non-fiction writing with its own set of 7 sentences and the most successful writers in my class used both sets of 7 in both fiction and non fiction pieces.
    By having this simple structure embedded in their writing by weeks and weeks of practice it meant that they didn’t really need to plan and could just focus on writing good sentences. I have a load of resources I’d be willing to share on this if it appeals, but clearly context is king and it seems to me your approach could be better for those pushing for As (or1s?).
    Love your work 🙂
    Dave

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    • nsmwells · September 30, 2017

      Thanks David,

      I like your approach. I just want my students to have some clear threads through their writing.

      My next step is for them to have done enough practice tasks to begin to see where they can lift an idea from a previous piece and use it again in a different way.

      I’d be interested in seeing your resources.

      Like

  2. Grumpywearymathsteacher · October 1, 2017

    Sorry to be such a tedious pedant but…poppies don’t grow in woodland. I think the red stuff is fallen leaves. It upsets me that very few people know much about nature these days. Creative writing is better if the details are plausible (I think). Sorry again for the random irrelevant comment.

    Like

    • nsmwells · October 1, 2017

      Thanks. Pedantry can be important.

      I actually had this conversation with students in class when we introduced it and we decided the flowers would be reminiscent of poppies rather than actual poppies. We thought this would make the distance of the grandfather seem even greater.

      Like

  3. missgirlesenglish · October 11, 2017

    Absolutely love this. Mine need a formula, so I’ve come up with an acronym for the steps:
    “The Most Daring Students Rebel Zealously”

    Like

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