THE POWER OF HOWEVER: Strategies for strengthening transactional writing

If you want your students to succeed in their transactional writing (a scheme is available here), one of the most powerful techniques you can teach them is the ability to use the word ‘however’. The reason for this is because the word represents a shift in argument, and ultimately can only be used if the student has a good comprehension of what the audience’s argument is.

As teachers, when we ask students undertaking transactional writing, ‘Who is the audience?’ our prompts must be motivated more than simply encouraging the appropriate register. All too often, once the register is secure, students only engage with the question by outlining their own position on the topic. However, such an approach becomes simply a one sided conversation. It becomes the student just thinking about him/herself, and ultimately, and probably most importantly, misses the chance of persuading the audience. We know ourselves that when arguing with someone, if the opposition isn’t addressing our concerns, we are unlikely to even listen to them, let alone be persuaded by them.

 “When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like.”

So my first port of call in transactional writing is to teach students to consider what the audience would be thinking about the topic. Why would they have their opinions? What would drive them? And in a limited amount of time, which opinions would be most important? From there, I teach them the word HOWEVER.

Take the example: Write a letter to the headmaster asking for the abolishment of the school uniform.

A student’s first thought here may be personal, that uniform restricts freedom and independence etc, but this is unlikely to persuade the headmaster who has her own reasons for wanting to keep the uniform. It’s infinitely more persuasive for the student to  identify the headmaster’s reasons, and then create a counter or polemic argument. The word ‘however’ becomes the perfect bridge to introduce the polemic.

HOW DO I DO IT?

To develop this style of attack, I pose a new topic every lesson, and have students fill out a small table like the one below. It only takes 5 minutes as points can be bulleted, but begins the process of automatically thinking about audience. It is particularly good for those who have been struggling in this form of writing. Once students get good at this, I then move to expanding the points (next post).

Write a letter to the headmaster asking for the abolishment of the school uniform.
Their argument             HOWEVER, My argument – solution
1. Distracts from learningBeing comfortable increases learning
2.
3.

At this point, subordinating connectives of contrast (whereas, although, though, nevertheless etc.) can be taught alongside ‘however’.

KEY NOTE: It is only when the reasons of an opposition are understood that the student can meaningfully engage with a response, a response that isn’t just one-sided, but is a genuine discussion involving a second party: the audience.

In fact, this theory applies to all communication, and I continuously point this out to my students, giving them a new perspective in communicating with parents, teachers, friends.

It also works for less obvious examples with some minor tweaking, with the ‘their argument’ section being related to reasons for not engaging with the issue/topic/concern:

Write a magazine article for teenagers, which persuades them to improve their health.

Their argument

            HOWEVER,

My argument – solution

1.
2.
3.

Write a leaflet helping to promote your school’s canteen

Their argument

            HOWEVER,

My argument – solution

1.
2.
3.

If you teach GCSE students who have been getting 2’s, or 3’s in their writing tasks, this strategy is worth trying, as not only does it provide a secure scaffold for their thinking, but it tends to eliminate a major factor in getting low scores: length of response.

The next post will focus on helping students build and develop their arguments from the bullets. It is here.

Thanks for reading. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger

HOMEWORK is a new strategy

Forget about all the negative past conceptions of homework.

When set properly, HOMEWORK is a new strategy to improve learning.

With the changes in curricula across the world, characterised by increased content demands, and many courses moving to exam based summative testing, the retention of knowledge by students has become paramount to achievement. To maximise success in such a context, teachers need to ensure 2 main things: the content taught is secure in students’ minds; the content taught can be recalled easily when required. Homework can help. 

1. SECURE THE CONTENT

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To assist in the consolidation of learning within the classroom, teachers can use homework as a means of strengthening the knowledge students have been taught. Often, these tasks will be in the form of practice, with questions or exercises designed to master skills. Such tasks should be 20-30 minutes in duration, and precisely matched to the content just taught.

The research is clear in tasks being extremely relevant: Redding (2000) states that homework should not be given on topics that have not been taught, and Cathy Vatterott (2010) is emphatic when suggesting that teachers should not assign homework as a matter of routine, rather, only when there is a specific purpose (both cited by Carr 2013). The most effective tasks provide cleared precise instructions, and provide an example of a question or exercise as a model for students to get the ball rolling. When a model and clear instructions are given, students are less likely to invalidate the homework process by outsourcing the learning, to either Google, or a parent/carer.

2. RETRIEVE THE CONTENT

The underlining premise of retrieval practice is that information that a student has stored in their long term memory needs to be recalled several times before the knowledge could be deemed to be completely secure, and retrievable at later stages. By actively ‘working’ on the memory, the memory is strengthened.

As retrievalpractice.org state, struggling to learn – through the act of “practising” what you know and recalling information – is much more effective than re-reading, taking notes, or listening to lectures, and so the opportunities that homework present to aid this process are significant. 

Just because a student has learnt something in a lesson doesn’t mean we should be content with that. If a student can’t recall the knowledge at a later date, then they effectively haven’t learnt it. This is incredibly pertinent if the knowledge learnt is a requirement for the next learning sequence, as most school learning is.

What is happening in the video?

  1. When information is presented to students it is processed in the working memory.

  2. If it is understood, it moves into the long term memory (LTM).

  3. However, if we don’t do anything with it when it is there, it potentially gets lost. What we need to do as teachers is to ‘work’ on the knowledge in the LTM, by retrieving it,

  4. so that it becomes semantic memory, memory comprised of schemas that we can recall easily.

  5. Once that is achieved, when new information is presented, students have the previous knowledge ‘at their fingertips’. 

Retrieval practice greatly assists in reducing cognitive load: as the learner becomes increasingly familiar with the material, the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are altered so that it can be handled more efficiently by working memory (Sweller 1988).

Homework presents a wonderful opportunity to develop retrieval. The very nature of time in-between the lesson and the subsequent engagement with the material satisfies one of the important characteristics of the concept: the element of forgetting the information. The research by Bjork is clear that the memory is strengthened if the student is challenged to remember it, a likely process if distractions occur between engaging with the content.

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HOW TO CREATE THE MOST EFFECTIVE RETRIEVAL HOMEWORK TASKS 

Tasks should be 20-30 minutes in duration, test like in nature, and should be a mixture of previous learnt material. Ideally, the majority of the tasks would focus on knowledge learnt very recently, with some percentage of exercises based on knowledge from a few lessons ago, with a final addition of a task based on something from much earlier in the year (or even from previous years). This exploits the concept of interleaving, which suggests that by chunking revision the likelihood of remembering the knowledge increases: again the 20-25 min task works well here, perhaps 20 mins on English, then 20 mins on Maths.

USE HOMEWORK as a teaching and learning tool.

See here for how best to manage homework.

REFERENCES

Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988).

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click to view Carr’s research