Metaphor through music videos

Video killed the radio star. But it gave birth to modern culture.


One of the main roles of being a teacher is to build student knowledge and develop the necessary comprehension to be able to engage with society at large for the rest of their lives. In the majority of subjects, developing comprehension tends to be based on the written word. However, whether we like it or not, a great deal of what defines us culturally is attributed to image; it is a dominant force in communication, and it seems remiss of current curricula to not engage in its teaching.

Image often relies on metaphor to communicate. An image will use a certain subject/colour/frame/ to represent or symbolise something else, and like the written word, it is effective because it opens up the reader’s thinking. The concept of metaphor is of course key to the English syllabus, driving the majority of texts, and allowing artists to describe, challenge, and celebrate the world around us. However, understanding metaphor can be a difficult thing for many students as it moves thinking into the abstract. Music videos can offer the chance to engage students with metaphor by modelling and explaining how meaning is made from what is presented visually. We know that skills are rarely transferable, but I believe that an understanding of visual metaphor significantly helps students understand the concept of metaphor, which they can then more easily engage with when in written form. Many of the metaphors used in video can just as easily be used in a written form.

Studying visual metaphor can also be used to stimulate thematic discussion, comparisons with existing texts, and even creative writing ventures.

THE RESOURCE

I have developed a resource HERE that has collated some quite interesting video clips that students may or may not have access to, and most likely haven’t thought about the layered meanings contained within them. The process is straightforward: students view the video, and then are asked to answer the questions provided on the slide. Often the second viewing is needed; this is okay, because what you are actually doing is modelling how to comprehend video/visual texts, stopping the video at relevant sections to help all students see the answers to the questions. Questions are usually based on meaning, as well as film/language technique (usually colours or setting) used to enhance the message. 

Whilst the development of this comprehension may not have any relevancy to your specific curriculum studied in terms of assessment, understanding the concept of metaphor is imperative, and the videos are a very accessible way of approaching such an important abstraction, which as already stated, can be difficult for some students. The absolute bonus is that sometimes, when you may be exhausted or you just feel that the time is right to ease off a particular piece of work, or just to vary the delivery of content, these videos are excellent learning opportunities that thoroughly engage the students, and always result in them asking for more.

How is it designed?

The resource is stored as a dropbox file, which has the benefit of being able to be continuously updated and added to. By the time you work your way through the current 20+ videos, I would have added lots more.

The level of difficulty of the questions and possibly the video content is currently aimed at upper secondary, but the beauty of the resource is that once you get a feel for the template, you can of course choose your own videos and level of difficulty of the questions to suit your classes.

If you feel you have some videos that could be added, like @alwayslearnweb who suggested the song Grenade by Bruno Mars, based on a favourite lesson she teaches, please let me know. I would love your recommendations.

Enjoy!

I’m Paul Moss. Please follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog if English resources and general education discussions are your thing.

RISKING RENEGADE REVISION? Not on my watch!

I have decided to design my students’ revision resources. Here’s why:

One of, if not the most important aspects of teaching, is that students have the requisite knowledge with which to engage in discussions. In English, in order for our students to be able to write essays in exams with aplomb, we need to ensure that they walk into the exam with sufficient knowledge to be able to negotiate what amounts to being one of their most important summative assessments. Unfortunately, many students, even those who have revised, open the exam booklet without that key knowledge.

How could that be? 

In previous years, after spending two years teaching the English GCSE course and ensuring students had the knowledge of the necessary content, I would throw it all over to the students and expect them to revise. I had little understanding of what the most efficient method of revision was, and my students had less. Nowadays we have lots more cognisance thanks to research and its promotion by leading lights such as The Learning Scientists and Retrievalpractice.org, but even with such perspicacity of the most efficient way to retain what they’ve designed as revision, there exists a large issue: many students are not designing the right revision.   

So, I have decided to design my students’ revision resources.

From my experience, flash cards are the best method for revising content. But there’s an art to their design, an art that many of my students haven’t mastered yet. In a time poor environment, I want my students to get more bang for their buck with their flashcards; I don’t want them to waste a card by asking who wrote a poem. And so I design cards that contain two pieces of knowledge in one. 

Each card then pushes students to think of two things, which will certainly not produce cognitive overload, and ultimately saves time. I try to contain the number of cards for each aspect of a text to 7-10. This means that for poetry, 7-10 per poem; for Lord of the Flies, 7-10 per theme; similarly for A Christmas Carol, and for Macbeth. So for these latter texts there may be up to 40 cards, but because they are organised into chunks, students will not face cognitive overload.

Students are encouraged to add more cards to their repertoire (separating into further chunks), as what I have created serves only as the minimum requirement, but for those students who I know are still hovering around the novice level, and realistically won’t produce more cards, I want to control how they are writing them.

Students are directed to the online cards via the revision website I’ve created (which I’m slowly but surely adding resources to – hence the unlinked poems).

Logistics

I design the cards on Quizlet.com, which is intuitive in its design, and makes creation of the cards easy. The platform also allows for students to engage in the testing of their knowledge on the bus or at home in quite interactive ways, interleaved into the 20+ hours a day they are on their phones ;). Again, i don’t want to leave to chance students using existing quizzes already on the site as I want to ensure quality control – I don’t want any confusion with content that students may not have covered, or worse, is wrong.

The importance of physical cards

The expectation is that students will have physical copies of all the cards that I’ve designed on Quizlet. Having the physical cards in their hands helps to avoid any possible distractions that undoubtedly arise when the phones are being used. Students can then use the cards with each other, with their family, or by themselves. Actively telling students that this is how they should use the cards is important – so many of my students have told me that they didn’t realise it would be so useful and bonding to get their parents to help test them with the cards – now that’s a massive bonus!!

I will ask one of our academic coaches to transfer the information on the online app onto cards (copy and paste), and then duplicate them for the number of students in year 11. It’s a bit of expense for the school to print out cards for each student, but it will be worth it. The other option is for students to write out their own cards as a homework task – which could serve as revision in itself.

Keeping things organised is crucial: each text has a title, and for longer texts like Macbeth, is separated into thematic discussions based around my knowledge/retrieval organiser. 

Below is the Quizlet app which is hyperlinked to my class, and is simple for students to join.

Don’t leave revision to chance. You are the expert. You know what you want your students to remember, and you know how to help them be as efficient as possible with their scarce revision time.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog if you are interested in English resources, and general educational observations.

SELF-ASSESSING REVISION

UTILISING A REVISION CHECKLIST

As my students begin revision in earnest, I have prepared a rudimentary A3 checklist for them to self assess where they stand in terms of being able to confidently say they are ready for pending exams. The doc is downloadable here.  I’m really hoping it benefits them. Please feel free to use/adapt it if you can see something in it too.

The grid’s design is analogous to the sequence of teaching that underpins my curriculum: content/knowledge first, then articulating ideas using the content, and finally practising until it becomes automatic. 

1. COURSE CONTENT

LITERATURE: Without the content, successful essay writing is impossible. Students need to know their stuff. What they need to know to be able to write strong essays is hierarchical in nature:

  • Most importantly they need to know the storylines of each text. They should be able to tell you what goes on in each text, with a fair bit of detail. If they don’t know, they must consult the revision website for links to quizzes and flash cards, both of which utilise retrieval practice. 
  • Secondly, they need to know the contexts of each text (even if they are not required to write about it in exams) as this helps provide an overall picture of how the learning links together. This will also serve to augment the memory as schemas are formed because of the interconnectedness. 
  • Next, they need to understand how the characters evolve in the stories.
  • Thirdly, they need to know what quotes will help support their discussions, and they need to be judicious and pragmatic in their choices.
  • Lastly, they need to know what language is worth discussing in depth in the chosen quotes.

If any of these elements need strengthening students are directed to the SDC revision website via the links on the doc. Those with a hardcopy are made aware of the links as the doc is discussed when introduced in class.

LANGUAGE: of course the Language exams are unseen, but still, revision of content is possible. Students need to know what each question is asking of them, how much response they need to give, and what mix of language analysis (AO2) goes with a text’s general interpretation (AO1). They also need to know about time restrictions. Students can view other student responses on the website to help strengthen each of the above aspects. This is the case for both fiction and non-fiction. 

Students should have written at least 2 stories that they have edited and improved to a strong level. The benefit of this is not necessarily that students can use them in the exam, but more so that they have practised and become familiar with the amount of writing needed and how to craft an interesting narrative in that space. They get a chance to really develop their writing when they can spend some time working on it.

2. ESSAY DESIGN

LITERATURE: The list of elements needed to compose successful essays is a useful way for students to check if they have the requisite knowledge to articulate the content now in their long-term memories. 

  • HAVE YOU WORKED ON FEEDBACK GIVEN AFTER ASSESSMENT TASKS? – Obviously exams are not going to be the first time students have had opportunity to write essays. The feedback from assessment is often the best practice as students are directed to work on a specific element that needs strengthening. If they haven’t acted on feedback, everything else is a waste of time, including any marking you’ve done. 
  • CAN YOU ANALYSE AN EXTRACT?– most of the exams have an analysis component. Becoming good at this is essential and it involves knowing language techniques and a good comprehension.
  • DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH EXTRACT VS REST OF TEXT VS CONTEXT IS NEEDED? – A crucial but easily practised consideration so students can maximise grades.
  • CAN YOU CONFIDENTLY INTERPRET ESSAY QUESTIONS & LINK TO WHAT YOU KNOW? – Understanding essay speak, and developing links between and within texts based on theme.
  • CAN YOU PLAN OUT ESSAYS FOR MULTIPLE ESSAY TOPICS? – Having a good range of vocabulary to be able to handle variations/synonyms of themes if something pops up that isn’t what we’ve been explicitly studying –e.g. Macbeth essay is about tyranny instead of power. 
  • CAN YOU MAKE LINKS BETWEEN TOPICS AND DISCUSS CONTEXT WITH CONFIDENCE? – Students should have an overall picture of the course, and be able to discuss multiple contexts if appropriate. The industrial revolution is a good example, as it applies to multiple texts. 
  • CAN YOU WEAVE CONTEXT INTO DISCUSSIONS? – Students should be able to extend a discussion with context and not just bolt it on somewhere in the essay.

LANGUAGE: students should be able to show examples of their competence in being able to answer language exam questions. If they can show me, not only do I know they have practised at least once, but also that they can now move into the more demanding but most beneficial component of the revision process. 

3. TIMED ESSAY PRACTICE

The ultimate revision is for students to now practice essay writing. If students have written several essays on each unit they put themselves in a significantly better position in exam conditions compared to those who haven’t practised at all. Even one essay in each section would benefit students as there is a lot of cross over of quotes etc. 

The checklist directs students via links to individual practice tasks so there can’t be any excuses for not being able to find resources. Having said that, only the first tasks in each section are linked, as to avoid it looking too cluttered, but in reality, by the time students have explored the links on offer, they would have become very comfortable with the website and realise that other information is there to be found. 

Of course the practised essays require marking, but this becomes less and less as students get further and further into the practice. The reason is that once students have mastered the articulation of the content, the essays merely serve as necessary retrieval practice and therefore don’t need the level of attention that developmental essays require.

I’m really hoping this works for my students.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger

TELLING YOUR CURRICULUM’S STORY

TELLING YOUR CURRICULUM’S STORY

‘What has benefitted me has been the story I’ve created that integrates and thus highlights the connectivity of the various components of my English curricula.‘

Essential to a successful curriculum is that topics appear to be interconnected, with multiple cross-referencing between units of work allowing students multiple pathways to access information. Such a design ultimately not only helps students in having an overall larger picture of the course, and significantly helps the memory of each of the components, but perhaps most importantly, it very much assists in your teaching as you become more conscious of when to link sections of the course as you teach, and how to sequence it. 

Here’s how I’ve done it for my every text/element of the Eduqas GCSE English Literature and Language courses. 

The courses offer a wonderful web that spans centuries of time. The oldest text is of course Shakespeare. What’s good to know when thinking of Elizabethan context is that the time is dominated by religious conflict, with the heirless Elizabeth I’s court choosing James I (James IV of Scotland) to succeed her primarily because he was Protestant. His continuation of the persecution of Catholics is what led to the Gun Powder Plot, and James’ consequent fear of assassination. In Jacobean times the showing of Macbeth served to illustrate that corrupt ambitions lead to tragic outcomes, but the theme is pertinent still because it can be accessed on a variety of levels: selfishness, greed, lying etc, and thus becomes a central strand of the moral and affective learning in the entire course. 

Jumping to the late 1700’s, George III lightened some of the anti-Roman Catholic laws, but Catholics still couldn’t vote in parliament. George is disliked for extending the war in America after the failed prevention of American independence, intransigent in his view that the new state should be made to pay for its disrespectful arrogance of wanting such freedoms. William Blake references this in the poem London: ‘The hapless soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down the palace walls.’  Soldiers are disillusioned in being forced to fight for things they don’t believe in. The blood down palace walls is perhaps a signal to Londoners to rise up against such tyranny like those involved in the French Revolution.

Shelley reiterates opposition to George’s warmongering, in the metaphorical Ozymandias, a tale of an arrogant egotistical ruler who proudly expresses his ‘sneer of cold command’, and who doesn’t realise the futility of demanding to be seen as the ‘king of kings’. Shelley’s reference to the bible’s labelling of Jesus is likely the result of exhaustion from the continuous battles between Catholic and Protestant religious factions. Shelley’s solution: become atheist, a stance that had him expelled from Oxford. (Shelley essay here)

Shelley’s, and indeed all of the Romantics insistence that it is really only nature that lasts and therefore warrants our ultimate attention is confirmed when a book of poetry by one of the strongest ‘natural’ poets, Keats, was found on his drowned body in 1822. Wordsworth too could be considered in this vain, with Excerpt from The Prelude adroitly referencing the importance of nature in grounding the developing individual, as well as Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist that similarly uses nature as a cover to examine the human condition, but Shelley was more aligned to the newer Romantics. Keats’ instruction to cherish the moment and to accept the inevitability of death in To Autumn, an admirable feat considering that death and loss dominated his life, is a timely message for students whose culture demands that what is now is irrelevant and that the next best thing must be acquired at any cost. The perpetual message, interminably promoted on social media, that the grass is always greener on the other side is an incredibly damaging one for our students. The message corrupts and distorts into the belief that what is on the surface must be prioritised, and that we must look and act like the unrealistic impressions generated by media.

Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is the perfect antidote, affirming the message that real beauty can only be gained by being true to oneself, and by being kind. Interestingly, Byron and Keats purportedly hated each other, but their poetry certainly sings similar tunes. Imtiaz Dharker also helps here too, with Living Space clearly engaging students to think about being grateful for what they have. 

Lord Byron’s poem contradicts his reputation for lasciviousness, a reputation gained initially with his scandalous affair with Caroline Lamb, the mother of eventual prime minister William Lamb, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister. It shows us that sometimes you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and a perfect validation for the importance of discussing context in the course: students should always at least try to seek knowledge of context before making decisions about the things they experience in their lives.  

The link to the Victorian era is also evident through the works of Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first prominent female mathematician, and essentially the inventor of the algorithm, most certainly one of the world’s most important discoveries. Her links with Darwin, Dickens, Farraday, Babbage and others opens up students’ access to knowledge of the 19th century, an advantage when reading and being asked to comprehend 19thcentury Language exams. It also shows students that history, or in fact anything that isn’t their age, doesn’t equal anachronism: 19thcentury sentence structure and vocabulary may be different, but human experience and emotions are binding, and timeless. 

Dicken’s novella exposes a dark and discouraged London still trapped in Blake’s ‘mind forged manacles’, still being swept along by the industrial revolution, with its central protagonist epitomising the impact and consequences of greed on good honest hard working people. Being generous and kind is most certainly the message promoted in A Christmas Carol. It is allegorical, ultimately seeking to change a society that forgets how to behave. Again, the echoed thread of corrupted ambitions leading to pain is evident, but crucially, there is light a the end of the tunnel, with the notion of redemption prevalent, generously given to the scrupulous and hyperbolic Scrooge, providing inspiration for all that despite any current and pressing situation, that happiness is still obtainable: the environment can be improved through education.      

The two post-Romantic poems of the Victorian era, both written by women, draw our attention to the struggles of female voice in society. Both poets were forced into reclusion. Elizabeth Barrett because of her speaking out against tyranny (as in Ozymandias, Hawk Roosting, London, Macbeth) imposed by her slave trading father and consequent hypocrisy of the church in its acceptance of it (via large donations), and the American Emily Dickinson because of similar denouncement of hypocritical religious doctrines.

The fate of the women was certainly different, with Barrett eventually finding a way out through love, celebrating her love in Sonnet 43. The poem is probably the most explicitly joyous in the syllabus, its hyperbole definitely understandable and relatable to those students experiencing love possibly for the first time. Dickinson’s fate? Not so celebratory. Her poem exudes tones of acquiescent depression (or an updated understanding). But again, the restrictions of society may be to blame, and again helps students to see that environments are usually to blame, and can and do change. Dickinson may have been in love with her brother’s wife, a relationship that could never come to fruition, but also symbolic of feelings that she likely never understood, or could allow herself to explore. The opportunity for discussion of societal and personal acceptance of relationships is apposite here. 

The poem Valentine addresses similar expectations placed on a society. Written by a vocal feminist, Carol Anne Duffy, it explores the traditional conventions of love and slaps them in the face. It facilitates the opening of students’ minds to the idea that what you see is sometimes not what you get, that we shouldn’t base all of our ideals on impossible superficial realities. Cozy Apologia by Rita Dove takes us down that exact path, with her feeling as though she has to defend her relationship with her husband because it doesn’t seem to have all the intensity and passion espoused by films and TV, and now, social media. Yet she miraculously has achieved possibly the most desirable outcome: contentment. It’s a different outcome to those described in Afternoons by Phillip Larkin, who have been ‘pushed to the sides of their own lives’. Like in Valentine, the ideal of marriage is confronted: it has been forgotten about, and replaced by a subservience to domesticity. The cynical yet cautionary poem is written around the time of a more savage portrayal of human nature in Lord of the Flies. 

Golding’s assault on the human condition is motivated by his war experiences. His lack of faith in a society capable of functioning without the conditioning of civilisation, metaphorically depicted in the story that sees the boys gradually succumb to the whims of the tyrannical (there’s that word again), is best understood in the context of exploring poems such as Dulce Et Decorum Est, The Manhunt, Mametz Wood, and A Wife in London. All of these poems expose the savageries of war, ranging from the more traditionally explored physical affects, to the more modern understanding of the psychological damage incurred. Students realise that it is little wonder that Golding was so pessimistic, having experienced D-day himself (and being a classroom teacher ;)). It also highlights the view proposed in the ostensibly propagandist poem The Soldier, as debatable. The dystopia offered by Golding serves as a warning, but again reiterates the notion that environment is crucial, with all of the boys having already experienced some conditioning and shaping of their instincts before arriving at the island. The bottom line: the environment can be improved through education.     

The multiple themes running through all of the Literature topics present multiple opportunities for students to engage with the texts with interest and develop strong lines of argument when writing essay responses. Knowing the story line of a text and why it was written is imperative for success, and therefore the first port of call in engaging. The development of writing, the ultimate expression of such knowledge in the form of analysis essays, all stems from this, as students are encouraged to piece together arguments exploring a text’s meaning in a sequential, interesting yet logical fashion. The writing of creative stories can be advanced by emulating the way authors already studied develop themes, using characters, sentence structure, and plot, and other stylistic features.  

This knowledge gained from such in depth analysis of Literature texts also paves the road for success in unseen comprehension tasks, tasks that dominate the Language course, and the unseen poetry section in the Literature course. The non-fiction reading elements may seem deserving of their own focus, but in reality, I think they are simply comprehension tasks analogous to the dissection and deconstruction of Literature texts, but in a slightly different, but easily understood form. The non-fiction writing component in the Language course requires students to engage in both persuasive and argumentative expositions. Both ask students to be able to place themselves in the shoes of the audience and address their needs, a skill that the Literature course has enhanced through the focus on context. Considering what someone else may be feeling when you are wanting to engage in a conversation with them (polemic argument) is indeed an enormously useful lesson for students to learn; proof that the environment can be improved through education.      

The argumentative texts demand an in-depth but logical response to topics presented, something the Literature course has augmented continuously, and persuasive responses rely on students being able to use the technical knowledge also acquired in the Literature course to engage the audience and manipulate and move their thinking round to that of the student. Being able to do this in a logical and calculative manner leads to a general calm assertiveness, and strengthened confidence, and helps students to gain a clearer sense of who they are.

Upshot

Having such an understanding of how the course is interconnected allows me to continuously draw students’ attention to links between sections in the course, and not just within say, the poetry unit, where comparison is a component. The story of the course also helps me to further consider the sequence I teach the topics in, and provides a new way of considering the benefits of interleaving.

Can you create the story of your curriculum? 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger.    

ENGLISH PRACTICE: ONE-STOP RESOURCE

It is a curation of activities designed for students to visit before and after assessment. Before, to strengthen knowledge of the course, and after, to strengthen knowledge of the course.

I have created a one-stop resource for my English GCSE students here

Originally, the site was designed as a support tool for the Language course only, hence the dominance of Language elements in the home page design. However, Literature has now also been added.

INSPIRATION – improving feedback via assessment

One of the big changes I wanted to make with my team when I took over the role of head of department was the way we assessed and then provided feedback. I wanted to control our summative assessment more so that if students made errors I could diagnose them more easily. Effectively, I wanted something in-between formative and summative assessment.

For example, if I wanted to solely check students’ ability to respond and continuously link back to the question in an essay, I would ensure that other factors would not interfere with the validity of what I wanted the test to do. I would give students ample time, definitions of words in an extract, a reduced range of content from which the test would draw, and sometimes even provide the essay topic in advance, etc, etc. In such a case, errors were likely to reliably indicate one of two things: lack of specific content knowledge, or a lack of knowledge in how to piece the content together in an essay format. This would then make directed feedback easier: practice retrieval of content, or observe modelled responses that follow the desired argumentative style, and adjust the response accordingly.

If the task was transactional writing, a focus could be on punctuation as well as students’ ability to address the audience’s needs (polemic argument). If responses indicated an issue with using commas correctly, the teacher could direct them to activities that served to strengthen their knowledge of how and when to use them. But direct them where? TES? Random handouts? Study guides? 

Take for example commas. What I realised was that there wasn’t really anything out there that took students back, as Daisy Christodoulou suggests in her seminal book ‘Making Good Progress’, to the fundamentals of knowledge in a sequential deliberate manner that would build security in knowing how and when to use them. To improve correct comma use, a student needs to firstly now what constitutes a complete thought. Everything is pointless unless this is understood.

Understanding commas relies on secure knowledge of what a sentence is. Sequentially developing this knowledge is key.

And so, the website was born. 

Assessment feedback directs students to specific activities on the website to strengthen their knowledge.

KEY FEATURES OF THE PLATFORM

TECHNOLOGICAL DESIGN –Wix.com offers a pretty user-friendly interface. The templates are easy to use and navigating through the design site is very intuitive. Pages can easily be linked, and it’s relatively easy to keep things organised. It’s also free, but you can subscribe if you want the ads taken away and want your own domain. 

The activities are mostly ppts that are located in a Dropbox (OneDrive, Google Drive) folder that is shared between the team. The enormous advantage of this is that the activities are alive, and can be updated continuously without having to change the links. This is a really important element of the site, as each member of the team can be assigned some responsibility to add what amounts to be fairly simple resources. The students of course can’t edit the activities. There are 3 of us in the team, and so if we all add even 2 activities related to areas we know students have to improve, then it quickly becomes substantive and offers plenty of practice opportunities to help achieve mastery. Once the template is clear, duplicating activities is relatively easy. Directing a student to work on their spelling of homophones for example becomes more meaningful as there exists at least 6 activities for each common homophone issue. By the time the students have completed these, more should be added. If the team identifies particularly common issues amongst the cohort, those resources would get lots of attention in terms of building the number of practice tasks. 

DIFFERENTIATION: Many of the activities are designed in such a way that they are developmental, increasing in difficulty as the resource grows. (Ideally this would be the case for all of them, but I haven’t had the time as of yet to fulfil this).This allows for differentiation, with directed tasks suiting the student’s current level. 

KEY LEARNING FOCI 

The selection of content is based on the most important elements in the course; the distinct parts that make up the summative test. As an examiner, I have the advantage of practising marking students’ work to criteria, and acquiring a strong understanding of what those isolated parts are that students need to join together and master to demonstrate proficiency. Bearing in mind that the site was set up originally as a support for struggling students, the choice of content was very much pragmatically inspired.  

COMPREHENSION – An especially important section for struggling students is the comprehension section. I am convinced that practising short reading tasks is the best way to strengthen comprehension, a vital skill in facilitating success in most exams in school. Students are asked to read a short piece of text and answer questions designed to increase in difficulty as the list proceeds. 

Students are encouraged to seek advice on the contexts of the texts and use a dictionary if there are unfamiliar words within. A glossary is present in most texts, primarily because it is wrong to assume that struggling readers equally understand words that we take for granted. 

EXAM TECHNIQUE – this section helps students better understand the criteria for answering exam style questions. Students are provided with opportunities to grade submitted answers in order to help them see how marks are awarded, and thus to know how much information is required of them in answering. This is indeed quite a challenge for lots of students, knowing how much to write to satisfy the examiner, but constantly seeing it modelled is a good way to help them consolidate the information. 

QUIZZES – Every quiz I give my classes is on here, with answers in the notes section. The quizzes are mostly Literature based. The rationale here is that students can access these at any time in their revision and retrieve the information. These serve as excellent homework activities, and students are encouraged to set themselves goals of mastery. It’s always so clear who has been doing them by the ease with which content is reproduced in assessment.       

ANALYSIS PRACTICE – Practice makes perfect. Students are presented with mini extracts and are asked questions with prompts for what techniques are used to enhance the meaning of the text. This design matches the developmental ethos of the site, and consequently allows for more accurate diagnosis if issues are made. These are instructed to be 15 minute activities, again perfect for homework. They take no time at all to mark too. 

STUDENT EXEMPLARS – this is a really powerful section. Seeing multiple perspectives or approaches to the same idea can help students, and an excellent way of achieving this is showing them well-constructed student responses. Whilst simply reading notes is an inefficient way to revise, seeing knowledge in context can be powerful for students who actually know the content, but struggle to form strong arguments with it or piece it together in a coherent fashion. It’s modelling 101.

STUDENT EXAMPLES OF CREATIVE WRITING HELPS TO INSPIRE ADN STIMULATE

GENERAL ACTIVITIES – there is quite a lot of vocab practice with a variety of activities to build vocabulary. There are also plenty of links to revision materials, such as my retrieval knowledge organiser, poetry contexts, as well as flash cards which I have and am designing for students (blog pending on the rationale for this).  

FEEDBACK ON ACTIVITIES – In terms of providing feedback on the activities, it is possible to add answers in the notes section of the ppt slides, so students can self-correct. I have done this to the quizzes, but not for other tasks (another job to do). 

THE FUTURE

Once again, the site is very much in its infancy. Lots of improvements can be made both content wise (more activities and greater focus on developmental movement through the knowledge) and aesthetically: consistent colour scheme, layout etc. But time is the answer to these things, as well as advice from experts. If you are able, I’d love your feedback on the whole thing. 

I would like to thank my amazing team: Rebecca Walker and Katie Babbs, whose constant support and friendship is truly wonderful and inspiring. 

Thanks for reading. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger

Curriculum and reading comprehension

An effective school curriculum is one that centres on comprehension. 

Wanting to understand the world around us is possibly the strongest driver of education. Comprehension is defined as the capacity of the mind to perceive and understand the information it receives, and it is irrefutable that the implications for poor comprehension are severe. In the modern curriculum, the dominant mediums for delivering information (teacher) include speaking and writing, which for the receiver (student), becomes listening and reading. Reading comprehension then is one of the most important skills for any subject, and yet, unless there are clear and obvious issues with reading, in most settings, its development is often ignored, assumed to be the remit of the English team. I believe that a large opportunity is missed when reading comprehension is not a continuous school wide focus. 

Recently Anthony Radice posited understandably that the GCSE English Language exam is an invalid test, as it doesn’t achieve what it intends: a measurement of competent comprehension of typical language use. The reason for the invalidity stems around the idea of ‘what is typical’, which has two points of contention: firstly, students are disadvantaged if some of the vocabulary within the text chosen is ‘not’ typical to them, but unknown, and secondly, even if they know the meaning of a word, if they don’t have sufficient domain knowledge (context) connected to the word they again are disadvantaged from comprehending the text completely. The comprehension then ostensibly appears compromised, and is punished by the grade it then attracts. Has the test then achieved its purpose? Can we say that the poor result is because of poor comprehension? It seems doubtful.

The first issue can be alleviated with a glossary: 

Take for example this sentence: The rudder was destroyed, and they knew what that meant for them. Now, without knowing what ‘rudder’ means, a student is faced with ambiguity. She could infer that there is impending danger, or that is it a celebratory moment, as though an enemy is defeated. Providing the definition would help enormously. *

The second issue however, needs general knowledge of the world the word is connected to. Take as an example this sentence: They looked at each other as the sun slowly set on the moors. Not knowing what the moors are detracts significantly from the meaning of the sentence. Initially, the reader may believe it is a romantic setting, provided they had previous exposure to the idea of sunsets being linked to romance. The ambiguity isn’t really relieved if they are told the meaning of moor: open overgrown wastelands. The reader needs to understand the context of such an environment to really appreciate the situation. Having the context or domain knowledge tells us the characters could be exposed to dangerous animals, or more likely, they will be exposed to seriously low temperatures due to the high altitude of a moor. The characters would thus be worried. A glossary simply can’t provide the amount of necessary background clues. The domain knowledge is lacking and prevents an accurate interpretation of the sentence, but the consequence again is an invalid conclusion about a student’s comprehension – it’s more that we can establish that the student has never heard of the moors before.  Importantly then, as David Didaustates, this should prevent the natural assumption that the poor response reflects on the intelligence of the student.

So what is the answer? Will boards of education remove the exam? It is unlikely at this stage. So what can schools do to improve the domain knowledge and vocabulary of its students to reduce the possibility that they won’t understand the meaning of sentences in English exams? The answer relies on a school’s commitment to the role comprehension plays in every subject and not just English. Currently many schools employ a school wide literacy strategy that impinges on other subjects, but they often appear to be primarily for the sake of boosting English GSCE scores. However, as described in the introduction, every subject relies on good reading comprehension, and with the ubiquitous move to end of course exams, even in vocational subjects, it has perhaps never been more pertinent. 

With the benefits being clear, it would seem like good practice for ALL subjects to embed a reading comprehension element in most lessons, thereby exposing students to as much reading and checking for understanding as possible in all of their subjects, throughout all of their secondary schooling. Hirsch suggests ‘An ideal language program is a knowledge program. It is a program that anchors and consolidates word meaning in the students’ minds by virtue of their knowing what the words actually refer to.’ He continues ‘We should immerse students for extended periods in the sorts of coherent language experiences that are most conducive to efficient vocabulary learning.’

This does not simply mean personal reading, such as the in vogue ‘Drop Everything and Read’ strategy. Whilst some domain knowledge can be inferred, pragmatically, in a reduced time context, domain knowledge really needs to be explicitly taught. Students could be given a 10 minute reading task every 2ndlesson based on the relevant subject. The text would take 5 minutes to read and discuss (on board so no paper needed), and 5 minutes to answer 3 – 4 questions. The discussion would be crucial in explaining domain knowledge and key vocabulary. Designing the tasks needn’t be an exhausting or intrusive (on the syllabus) process, with teachers basing texts on lesson content. Many subjects already probably do this, but may only require a slight adjustment in focus that deliberately extends vocabulary and general knowledge. 

Solomon Kingsnorth shares a well thought out explanation as to why he is changing his school’s approach to reading comprehension here.

Doug Lemov has some good ideas about developing vocabulary within your questioning. Say you’ve just read a text on the environment in science. A suitable challenging question could be: 

  • If someone was adamant about helping the environment, what’s something they might do? This type of question embeds high-level vocab whilst checking for understanding of the text. The vocab would be explicitly discussed before the question is answered. Ideally, the word would be used again in a few lessons’ time to strengthen the memory of its use. 
  • History: what were some causes of Hitler’s imperiousviews?
  • PSHE: If a classmate was described as ‘easily influenced‘ would that be a compliment? Why or why not?

The EEF has some strategies for teachers to use in strengthening comprehension here.

Over time, the number of topics read would be extraordinary in number, considering how many lessons in a week students could be exposed to information.

The cultural capital gained from this school wide approach would significantly improve students general domain knowledge, and therefore their reading comprehension, and as a by-product, significantly reduce the possibility that students taking English Language GCSE exams would be unable to understand a text based on a particular context; they would have likely had some exposure to it at some point in time. This coupled with providing a glossary for vocabulary in texts would help to make the exams more valid.  

Of course, if students read for pleasure outside of school, most of the issues would disappear. In the modern world however, this ideal unfortunately appears to be moving closer to utopia than reality. The imperative for schools to provide the opportunities for students to read have never been more important.

* Simply providing a glossary however also has issues, primarily related to the extra cognitive load required in processing the new information. This of course detracts from the fluency of the reading, and ultimately takes longer for the student to engage with the meaning.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger