SHOWING and telling your CURRICULUM’S STORY

Last year I posted how I approached my GCSE Literature course design; it was one of my most read blogs (thank you to all). I suggested the course should essentially be a story, with each new learning sequence inextricably connected to the last, and indeed, to several other parts of the journey. The story would be continuously referenced when every new piece of content was added, the discussion of the links significantly helping my students to understand that the course was a whole being, and not to see it merely as a disparate collection of units: a process that would significantly aid their memories as the links would effectively and continuously and unconsciously build a strong schema that could be referenced to reduce cognitive strain in new learning contexts.

Well, it most definitely worked. The post is below.

What I Would Change

I should have added a visual map of the final product, as well as making each stage of the journey visually explicit so students could see how the journey unfolds. This would have helped students see how each new piece was connected to what had been learnt. The map then would have become a representation of the schemata that would form in the student’s brain, and helped secure the links of knowledge that enable understanding.

So I’ve added the visual map now. The video shows the content incrementally building and connecting to various other content.

This visual display also serves other very powerful functions

  • It helps you as the teacher to see the key elements of your course, and design a relevant sequence that will piece it all together.
  • The visual aspect to the mapping provides a more concrete demonstration of how lesson after lesson actually fits together. Obviously the final map presented at the beginning of the unit of work won’t mean very much to your students, but as the units unfold, the connections will become more tangible. I would always have the final map as well as the map in progress visible to students somewhere in the classroom.
  • Students themselves could be adding to their own map using dual coding as the learning sequences are presented to assist developing understanding. See how I have done this for A Christmas Carol here and the entire poetry anthology here.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is acc-in-quotes-e1562592233762.png
  • Students can then also self-evaluate if there are any gaps in the sequence; they will be able to see why they can’t engage with a certain topic because they have a clear visual display of the gap leading up to it.

Zoning in and Mastery

  • This process can be emulated in micro, at every stage of the learning journey. Each new topic should have a small concept map that the teacher frequently refers to, that articulates and visually shows the various links of importance.
  • Each map, once secure in the student’s mind (effectively turning them into an expert on this particular learning continuum), presents opportunities for more open ended questions and tasks to be explored and undertaken. Designing learning that incorporates this balance between higher order thinking and more concrete closed knowledge chunks is an essential component of healthy retrieval practice, as suggested in this latest fascinating research by Poojah Agarwal.
  • Retrieval practice – remove sections of the map; remove words in each circle; remove some of the lines connecting the topics and have students create new connections justifying their choices in writing along the line, as Sophie has done with her excellent reading connections post here. There are also other options for mixing up retrieval here.

The Power of the Map

Of course, the links are subjective, but that only serves to strengthen the learning as links are debated and justified. In fact, this process presents many higher order learning possibilities, all serving to deepen the understanding of the key concepts and constructing new thinking:

  • Justifying the links and connections strengthens the understanding of each aspect of the map
  • Strengthen comparisons – Once individual content is secure, the student can ‘think’ with what s/he has, and with comparison a must in all literature courses, this process pushes thinking to connect ideas. The comparisons can also be made with context, and students can more easily see how certain eras and writers are affected by others.
  • Each section can have many more contextual links added if time permits, which continuously builds a cultural literacy that can have a big impact on the Language course comprehension tasks and general reading proficiency.

Here’s the explanation as to how the map has been constructed from the previous blog. In the explanation I’ve covered 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… Continue reading

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog, if you’d like.

Finding time for CREATIVITY

This is part 3 in a series of blogs on creativity in the classroom. The first is here, and the second here.

As stated previously, providing students with adequate knowledge before problem solving or inquiry is opened up is not an attempt to smother or stifle curiosity or independence, it’s simply a necessary, pragmatic and sensible approach that understands motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and is trying to foster a love of learning. Daisy Christodoulou argues something similar convincingly here in a debate with Guy Claxton. I think a reasonable take away from Daisy’s perspective is this:

A knowledge approach is actually the problem-solver’s best friend, trying to develop an independent learner by keeping them enthused about inquiry because they have the capacity to engage with it.

But equally, as Guy exhorts, only teaching knowledge and forgetting about its application may also be doing students a disservice. It is not a condition of learning that all knowledge should be applied for it to be a valid learning experience, but there should be ample opportunity in a curriculum because it’s another way to engage a sense of excitement about the content, a way to foster a love of learning, and a way to begin the development of the next innovators, artists, entertainers and scientists etc. Almost without exception, students producing interesting applications of what we’ve taught them is highly motivating for them. The feelings of excitement and satisfaction evoked by successful creative endeavours would assuage Guy Claxton’s fear that students in traditional education aren’t given the preparedness for the demands of a future society that values creativity as a highly adaptive skill. If experienced, students will seek these feelings as often as possible. 

It’s also another way to maintain our love of the subjects we teach when we see students creatively apply the knowledge in new and novel ways – it’s exciting! Those moments when I’ve read a really insightful interpretation of a text is one of the best parts of my job.

So where do we add it in the curriculum?

It seems that prescribing space near the end of a unit would be the first place to begin. However, end of unit tasks certainly shouldn’t be dumbed down expositions into weakened curriculum, as Joe Kirby warns against but resolves wonderfully here. Mark Enser similarly cautions us about the ease with which sequenced activities can fall into the mire of simply ‘doing’ tasks here. But like all experts, the best teachers explore all the research available to them and use their common sense, intuition and specific contexts to design a learning experience for their students that fosters a love of learning.

Here are some possible counterarguments to the legitimate issues raised in the last post that may serve to get you rethinking about how much opportunity you provide for creative application of the knowledge you’ve taught:

Issues with creative curriculum design Solutions to issues
Lack of reliability in assessing it summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective? How then can we safely say that everyone in the class is benefitting from this context? Are there some (many) who are simply bludging? and if the amount of time dedicated to creatively applying knowledge is several lessons, is this wasted time?
Can we loosen the standardised nature of some assessments to encourage creative responses to tasks, and take a leap of faith that it will still be a valid endeavour? Can we at least use criterion based measurement, even though they are wrought with validity issues? Do we have to have data on everything, or can a task have inherent value, knowing what it is developing a habit of thinking about what to do with the knowledge? Sometimes too an episodic experience can serve to strengthen the semantic knowledge in other, ostensibly hidden ways.

Also, can we truly measure the benefits of engagement? If students are genuinely enthused about your subject having created an interesting application of what we’ve taught them, this may drive further learning in ways we can’t always foresee.
Creative application is messy – in a class of many children completing multiple projects, it is extremely difficult to manage their progress and whether there is sufficient application from all. Each project would have to be assessed in terms of its practicality and feasibility, and adjusted if unrealistic on both fronts. Like EYFS teachers who insist that scripted lessons are impractical in terms of managing the children, likewise secondary students left to open undirected learning can be equally troublesome, and most teachers could do without the exhaustion of it all. Building the metacognition of how to approach a creative task can alleviate this issue. Helping students become more reasonable with their projects, helping them learn about resources and time management as early as possible, and beginning with creative opportunities that are actually quite limited in scope so as to build that thinking. Culturing a classroom of high expectations is crucial to build this type of thinking also, and this post by Cerridwen Eccles exemplifies that.
Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may not have the appropriate skills needed to carry out the intentions of their project. E.g. artistic, technological, etc. and employing other areas of the school to assist is a logistical issue. This then takes us back to the original issue that prevents this type of learning from being successful – when the knowledge base isn’t sufficient for actual learning to happen. Never has there been a stronger argument for keeping the arts as a central focus in school. Ensuring that a curriculum provides students access to a range of mediums to express themselves is key here. Limiting creative experiences initially to areas that have been learnt in other subjects would be a wise place to build the success of creative time in classes. Primary teachers seem to be particularly good at this, say for example using art to strengthen other curriculum areas. These teachers teach students how to paint and draw so that this knowledge can be applied with ease in expression of ideas related to other learning. Having a good understanding of what students are taught in other subjects is a good place to start.
There’s so much content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with external examinations in mind. Boards of education seem to have rammed so much content into the curriculum possibly because of a fear of there being empty spaces – because creative aspects can’t be assessed, those who don’t provide such learning experiences need something to do – the corollary of this is that everyone pays the price with the need to add more content.  Taking the established knowledge to creative places will result in deeper understandings, and ironically, may result in more learning happening overall, as students find the next topic potentially easier having built schemas that facilitate acquisition of new, but related information; the espousing of a quest for depth of knowledge is a common thread in every piece of education literature I’ve ever read about goals of education. The absolute key then is to design your curriculum that has obvious links.  Claire Hill articulates such a proposition beautifully here.

Also, mini creative moments during units of work can serve as creative opportunities for students who have secured content and are waiting for others in the class to get there too. This may be in the form of challenging questions, designing representations, applying understanding to new contexts etc. This differentiation can be simply done as the teacher wanders the room and sees students ready for such exploration. 
It’s hard enough teaching the knowledge right – few of us have mastered the intricacies required to take students to mastery, and with the next part of the course needed to be got at, not only is there not time to foster an experimental context of the knowledge, but students likely haven’t mastered the knowledge to be able to use it effectively anyway. I hold myself up against educators like Tom Needham and Adam Boxer in this regard, educators who are meticulous in their planning and delivery of content to ensure mastery. I recommend you check them out. I think a well designed curriculum borrowing from the expertise of educators who have clearly mastered the craft is the answer here. Direct instruction hosts connotations of restrictive pedagogy, but in reality no teacher wants there to be gaps in learning, so if direct instruction eliminates them, it would seem feasible to entertain the method. Using worked examples and focusing on removing ambiguity in communication is teh topic of this superb series of blogs by Tom Needham here. Adam Boxer also discusses the importance of then slowly removing the scaffold to increase the challenge here.
To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, ‘like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art’*, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. Opponents to this aspect of modern schooling are numerous, correct and vociferous about the reductionist outcomes of accountability, but nevertheless, this elephant is very much still in the room.Logically it is quite clear that teaching to the test simply doesn’t work. The reason is that tests are a sample of a domain of knowledge, and if you only teach a sample then students won’t have the requisite knowledge if that sample isn’t in the next exam. It is also so boring to teach in this way. It doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have the end game in mind; pragmatically you just have to, but you would understand what knowledge is needed and design curriculum that builds towards it. That’s just good teaching anyway.

It is imperative that educators do not conflate the argument for creativity with the idea that learning isn’t worthwhile unless it has a creative element. Often, the learning itself in adding to the student’s knowledge is a worthwhile endeavour, and I am certain that teachers will add to this post their own ideas about how creativity can be a natural part of a learning sequence, from which lots of inquiry can be generated. So, is there space in your curriculum for some creative application of the knowledge that you have spent considerable energy designing and presenting to your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.

The imperative of storytelling Pt 1

‘Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people’ Heinrich Heine

Story has the power to radically change our emotions. The Nazi Party understood the power of storytelling all too well. Hitler himself was completely transfixed by Wagner’s opera Rienzi, inspired by the central character’s determination to free the enslaved populace: “You know, Ley, it isn’t by chance that I have the Party Rallies open with the overture to Rienzi. It’s not just a musical question. At the age of twenty-four this man, an innkeeper’s son, persuaded the Roman people to drive out the corrupt Senate by reminding them of the magnificent past of the Roman Empire. Listening to this blessed music as a young man in the theatre at Linz, I had the vision that I too must someday succeed in uniting the German Empire and making it great once more.”[32].   Thisenrapture with the story eventuated in a lifelong fascination with the composer, but fatalistically, inspired the catastrophic manifestation of Wagner’s nationalistic vigour and extreme anti-Semitic beliefs. On May 10, 1933, the Nazi Party held a public demonstration, where they burned books written by Jews, modernists, socialists and writers deemed un-German in spirit. The exhibition was orchestrated by the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who was all too aware of the influence of words inked on a page. Jonathan Gottschall in his excellent book ‘The Storytelling Animal’ articulates it perfectly when he describes the prophetic burning of Heinrich Heine’s book Almansor: ‘… and so they committed a holocaust of undesirable ink people so there would be fewer barriers to a holocaust of real people.’

Melanie Green and Timothy Brock argue in their paper titled ‘The Power of Fiction: Determinants and Boundaries’, that fictional worlds are able to radically alter the way information is processed. They infer that we become emotional slaves to the writer. When we read non-fiction, our emotional shields are up and we become critical and sceptical, but fiction leaves us vulnerable, like naïve children fashionable to the writer’s whim. Ray Bradbury was attuned to this phenomenon, penning Fahrenheit 451, and completely cognizant of the need of a story to warn us against a society devoid of stories.  

But why do we become so defenceless to these emotional sagas? It’s for two reasons: the brain’s architecture, and the dominant theme in most stories.  

Inside the cerebral cortex lies the anterior insula, a section of the brain that plays a large role in cognition and consciousness. It provides us with self-awareness of our own physiology, and is linked to the feelings associated with direct sensations. But researchers found something incredible about this area. When subjects were shown others experiencing feelings of pain and sadness and happiness, the anterior insula reacted in a similar way as though it was experiencing these feelings itself. And voila, an explanation as to why we feel empathy. When we hear a story the anterior insula is activated, which causes us to vicariously experience the emotions offered in the story. We don’t just sympathise with a character experiencing sadness, we empathise with them. We feel it. Sometimes (or lots if you’re me), you’ll cry at sad moments of a story, whether it be in book or film form. You’ll feel genuine happiness when the central character’s conflict is resolved. You’ll feel visceral anger and indignation when injustice prevails. Evolutionary psychologists suggest this is so we are able to learn about these emotions and how to deal with them in a non-confrontational safe way, so that people, and especially children, are exposed to a wide range of experiences and can develop strategies and appropriate responses to the emotion should they find themselves experiencing it at some point in their future.

‘One of the possible negative aspects of the insular cortex is its role in addiction. For example, if one is attempting to quit smoking, environmental cues such as seeing others smoke act as a trigger in the cortex. One’s desire to smoke rises because the cortex expects smoking to follow certain sensory stimulation. This trigger applies to any number of drugs and can make abstaining extremely difficult.’

from here

You may worry that this leaves us in an extremely vulnerable state if such stories are teaching immoral or unproductive lessons, but interestingly, such worry is mitigated by the knowledge that the vast majority of stories tend inherently to be moral arbiters, consistently promoting the demise of negative social behaviour in favour of the cooperative morally right. We tend to have an instinct for what is morally right it seems, and rarely are stories successful without such an outcome. Even in the movie the Joker, despite its violent lead character a seemingly sadistic psychopath, the audience views him as the hero, only because they are privy to the injustices he has experienced over an extended period of time, and so we empathise with his violence, understanding it to be reactive rather than calculated; justice versus injustice.

The power of stories certainly can’t be underestimated, and teachers of every subject and phase have a wonderful opportunity to exploit the benefits they offer. The least of which is the teaching of emotional intelligence.

In a coming series of posts I will discuss the natural unavoidable biological lure of story, and its use in developing cultural literacy, vocabulary, grammatical structure, the development of semantic memory, and lots of other educational connections to the artform. These conversations are part of a book I am writing with Ceridwen Eccles on reading, called ‘Love, and Reading’.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational and English teaching discussions.


If You Don’t Model, Learning’s a Lottery

The video below is a perfect demonstration of why it’s so important to model learning for students.

What it highlights is what most motivated people do when not instructed properly: we improvise. Sometimes it works for us. Lots of times, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Oh, how much easier it would have been, all those hundreds of times opening the stock packet to have known how to do it as it was intended to be done. Oh the time we could have saved; how much better our cooking may have been with the stock evenly distributed. Oh the lament thinking of the times when the stock didn’t completely dissolve: the looks of disdain not even nearly disguised on my kids’ strained faces.

I use the 1st person plural pronouns deliberately, because actually when we teach a class, there is collective learning, learning that is taken out into the world by our students and disseminated. If it’s incorrect, or just not as good as it could be, lots of people can be affected.

Careful and precise modelling of the learning we want our students to engage in is crucial. Andy Tharby discusses ‘live modelling’ and ‘worked examples here, as does Tom Needham here. If we don’t, success in the task is only possible by passing through several hoops.

  • The first is the student’s level of motivation. Joe Kirby explores motivation wonderfully well in this post citing a Willingham hypothesis of what drives motivation: it is not so much the relevance of the content as the challenge of the task. ‘Curiosity has staying power if we judge that the mental work will pay off – we quickly evaluate the mental work it will take to solve the problem’. In other words, when students are finding the task difficult to do in the absence of effective modelling with incremental steps and appropriate amounts of practice, if the perceived chance of success is 50% or less, which includes social success, most will give up.
  • Despite this probability, if students are able to hang on through this and attempt the second hoop, they are now at the mercy of having to hope that their efforts do not expend too much cognitive load in processing the task. Again, if this overload renders perceptions of success low, students will give up.
  • However, some students will show remarkable resilience, which can be trained, and persist in tackling the task and producing learning. But the learning is a lottery, sometimes producing success, often not. The proof is in the OXO example.

If we want students to learn what we want them to learn, we have to show them what it is we want them to learn.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more on educational discussions and English teaching.

Should examiners be expert in the subject they mark? Duh!

I know what you’re thinking. This is obvious. Well, think again.

An examiner has to provide evidence they are teaching in their field, but they don’t have to show they are any good at it.

Take the recruitment of English examiners for example. So desperate are boards to attract markers, rather than make it an attractive proposition financially to attract the very best people, they accept teachers who have been teaching for a minimum of 3 years. They literally advertise the positions as excellent CPD – in other words, you’ll be training and making all kinds of mistakes whilst students’ grades are on the line.

Examiners do not have to have read a certain text to be able to mark an exam on it. For example, the Shakespeare component offers students a range of Shakespeare plays to write about, but at no point are teachers allocated to specific texts to match their expertise in a particular play. Consequently, there is a strong chance that an examiner may have marked a script in the last GCSE exams on Othello, or The Merchant of Venice, or Much Ado About Nothing without any real knowledge of the play.

Even if they do know the play, if a student provides a quite nuanced response, is the unread or inexperienced teacher/examiner going to be able to appreciate the insight? I doubt it. Is the student’s grade going to be compromised as a result? Of course.

As teachers, we spend a considerable amount of time trying to push our brightest students to explore the subtleties of these great texts. What a shame that some of that won’t be recognised in exams.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more discussions about education and English teaching

CREATIVE WRITING – an approach for reluctant writers

Teaching creative writing can be incredibly difficult. I’ve discussed some of the issues previously, but the most frustrating I think is when students suggest they aren’t creative and so justify to themselves not doing any writing. The inevitable disruptive behaviours then can become a nightmare to manage. In this post, I will introduce a pragmatic approach I’ve adopted, with success, in getting students to produce quality responses in specific time frames.

Students who withdraw from the writing process undoubtedly lack the confidence to write, which is because they lack the tools to do so. There are numerous commentators who implore teachers to provide consistent opportunities for students to write, thereby building their confidence in the process and concurrently developing a love of writing. Chris Curtis‘ notable 200 word challenge is a prime example, where students are encouraged to write from a prompt but crucially without the fear of it being marked within an inch of its life, avoiding any self-consciousness and allowing a freedom of thinking. The English and Media Centre’s ‘Just Let Them Loose’ echoes similar sentiment, beseeching the need for students to write on their own terms.

Whilst I completely advocate these approaches, I also know that they require a dedicated and deliberate curriculum design to consistently give students the opportunities to write and slowly build self-regulatory skills in knowing how to strengthen their ability. Possibly because these understandings haven’t filtered through the years yet, unfortunately, quite often when students enter my GCSE classes, many still have significant gaps in their creative writing. They have missed the developmental approach in KS3 and KS2, and because of the ridiculous pressures of the GCSE exams, I have to compromise with the above expressive strategies. I have to provide students with a writing structure to engage creative writing.

This scaffold eliminates the opportunity for a student to not produce any writing, but also arms them with a tried and tested formula that can then be used as a base from which to begin the expressive journey that the above strategies espouse.

SCAFFOLDING WORKS

To begin, I wanted to demonstrate that the structure I was going to propose they follow was an effective one. There is no better way to do that than actually reading successful stories to them. Such stories have been gathered over the years, and have been collated here (PS – I’d love to add more stories to this if you have some). Pragmatically, the stories are based on the GCSE creative writing task, around 45 minutes worth of writing – this is a crucial idea: everything I expose them to should be a model they can follow to satisfy the 45 min task. Again, thinking pragmatically, I am beginning to think more and more that the key for success is develop deeper understandings by limiting the type of writing students do – that is, getting better at less rather than spreading efforts too thinly (blog pending).

With interest piqued from the read out stories, I introduced the process:

  • Provide images as prompts with the intention of slowly removing them so eventually only worded prompts are necessary
  • Provide writing structure scaffold
  • Provide a written story with comprehension questions to build structural knowledge
  • Tell students they need to complete 2 stories before the assessment – kind of like a controlled assessment – one using the prescribed structure and the other of their own choice, for the sake of evaluation. This means that students can decide which structure they prefer to write with

HERE IS THE SEQUENCE IN ACTION

I presented a provocative image to spark thinking – one that included a character. The image opposite is superb.

I then introduced the 4 section story:

  1. Intro – begin in the middle of an action or scene of intensity. The important thing here is to emphasise a particular tone that the main character is experiencing – negative or positive. The ending of the intro could introduce a cliff hanger to tease the reader, as the next section will not explain it immediately.
  2. Flashback A – this is a chance to connect to the character affected by the action in the opening. Contrast is essential, with the reader taken back into the character’s life that was either going along really nicely (contrasted to negative opening) or badly (contrasted to positive opening). This section doesn’t have to relate to the opening, and I think this provides a relief to the reluctant writer as they can simply develop the character without bounds.
  3. Flashback B – this is the beginning of the sequence of events that eventually take the reader back to the opening scene. By the time we finish this section, the opening would then make sense. A conflict is introduced, that contrasts, again, with the positive or negative tone created in flashback A.
  4. Ending – this doesn’t have to resolve the plot. It can incorporate aporia, a sort of ellipsis, either leaving the reader wanting to know more, or simply ending things without a feeling that all is restored or ok. I write about such a fatalistic tone in Macbeth and other texts here. This idea of aporia is crucial because I think this is where many struggling writers become unstuck – feeling that their ending has to rock the world, feeling like they need to satiate the traditional narrative arc.

WRITE YOUR OWN STORY – this process is crucial, so you get a sense of what the process is like, and can then discuss and show students yourself how to do it. The confidence with which you model will give your students great confidence too, knowing that they can trust your ability.

Below is a model story I wrote, available here. I live modelled the beginning, and then gave them the story. On the right hand side I have explained each section’s purpose, offering them a template to use for their writing.

To help develop a better understanding of the process I realised that students needed to have a good understanding of the story – I needed to test their reading: first their comprehension of the plot, but also how the story had been designed (questions below). I wanted to expose the students further to the mechanics of the writing, to delve into the purpose of each section.

EXTRA SCAFFOLD – SENTENCE SCAFFOLDS

As I’m sure you’ve experienced, students often can’t get started. As a solution to this, but also to consolidate the comprehension and knowledge of the design of this approach, I gave them a grid to complete that would provide a rationale for EACH sentence. The purpose of this is to provide a mood scaffold (3rd column) as well as a structure within the structure (last column).

Once this first model has been worked with, more images are used for students to practice the process. More likely than not, which I think validates this approach, you may need to continue with the modelling, writing another story yourself with a new image and taking students through the scaffold.

When we see students needing more than one experience of the modelling process, it reminds us that it’s not easy to write a successful story, and it takes lots of practice. Not just the inexperienced teacher would be guilty of rushing the process and have students writing independently too quickly, especially when exams loom.

Critics of this approach would cite that the very prescriptive aspect of the strategy smothers the freedom of expression that makes writing such a wonderful artform. My response to this is threefold:

  1. Firstly, pragmatics must drive strategy when students have missed necessary developmental time in previous years
  2. Secondly, the strategy is not designed to be the only writing technique, but a base from which students can develop personal style.
  3. Thirdly, because it takes a long time to become a strong writer, students may be better served in getting strong at one style before trying others. Developing one style well I think is better than what weaker writers end up with when left to their own devices – which is nothing.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching and general educational resources and discussions.

GRAMMAR AND COGNITIVE LOAD IN WRITING

Recent observations from marking transactional writing draw me to the following hypothesis: when students are pushing their working memory to capacity in order to produce developed arguments, if grammar is not at the point of automaticity, it is neglected.

This post will present the case for this assertion.

There seems to be 5 types of writers in transactional argumentative writing:

  1. Strong content, strong grammar
  2. Good content, poor grammar
  3. Ok content, poor grammar
  4. Poor content, ok to poor grammar
  5. Very poor content, very poor grammar

Grammar, as defined by Aarts, Cushing and Hudson (2019) in their book ‘How to Teach Grammar‘, is a ‘system of generalised patterns in a language that convey meaning.’ Tools to assist in that shaping include inflectional and derivational morphology as well as syntax. Essentially, morphology refers to the structure of words (so spelling is grammar) and syntax to how words are used in a sentence. There are numerous grammars in the world, but an important consideration for proponents of functional grammar is that these patterns must be explored in context, which makes sense in terms of evaluating their effects. Students secure in the grammar understood by schools engage in the ‘playing with’ of structures and patterns to create meaning; and analyse how an author has used words to create particular effects.

Phrasing and the creation of competent sentence constructions is an axiomatic consideration at GCSE level, usually employing subordinate clauses for effect, as well as spelling words correctly. I also contend that punctuation is inextricably linked to grammar in that syntax is defined or bounded by punctuation. Accurately signposting the bounds of these constructions on the page is critical to successful syntax, and therefore, grammar. Out of the VSSPS criteria, that leaves vocabulary as the only element not technically a grammatical choice.

Marking students’ work is a difficult thing to do because the argument of what constitutes grammatical control undoubtedly means lots of different things to lots of different people. Who judges what is appropriate? Modern writers flaunt every convention we are taught, and are rewarded for it. The dilemma for teachers though is that in order to mark exams fairly, criteria need to be established and adhered to. This post can’t delve into this debate, but more so offers a discussion into the benefits of teaching grammar (whether that is contextualised or decontextualized) in helping reduce cognitive load in student writing.

Observations on each of the 5 types of responses (of course, shocking generalisations)

  1. These students obviously score highly in writing tasks. They develop their points, and control their sentence construction well, and usually for effect. These students tend to be on the higher end of the bell curve, and thus don’t represent the majority.
  2. These students are relatively rare. They write with good strong arguments, yet forget about rules of punctuation or basic grammar constructions as they go. They tend to be very good orally, and possibly see language as purely functional, like in text messaging etc, and convert that into their writing tasks.
  3. These students tend to make up the majority. They tend to be band 3 responses in content, and often band 2 in VSSPS. It is the poorer grammatical control that usually prevents them from getting more than 50% of the available marks in the task.
  4. These students, like number 2, are quite rare. They tend to have done well in primary, but then struggled during high school for one reason or another, which results in inability to produce good content in examination. In terms of VSSPS, they feed off the cultural fat of their primary knowledge (lots of participation in reading and writing), but still only just scrape through, and sometimes not. Their handwriting tends to be very neat, and large.
  5. These students seriously struggle in writing. They lack organisation in ideas, and control of grammar in general. Their handwriting tends to be very poor.

A common thread in 4 of the categories is inadequate grammatical control. Bear in mind I am talking about end of GCSE examinations, where really, grammatical control should be at least consistently competent. It should be more the quality of ideas that are being assessed. But sadly, this is not the case.

A THEORY AS TO WHY

In examination, students’ working memories are at capacity. I believe that the majority of their focus is ascribed to the question presented in front of them, in trying to plan a response and remember the appropriate layouts and conventions of the text type. If grammar is not secure, and is not at the point of automaticity, it invariably will take the backseat, and suffer miserably. The student simply has to decide (unconsciously) what will be compromised, and the choice is essentially made for them with the palpable exhortation of content over style: ideas over grammatical control.

The enormous irony here is that a good understanding of grammar would assist in the presentation of the students’ arguments. The construction of sentences to frame discussions, if clear and concise, would assist in the working memory’s generation and organisation of present and future ideas.

But, something that maybe is not understood or considered enough, when writing, is the effect of reading back disorganised work on the generation of the next thought. It is normal to read what we have just written, to check and validate the thought process. For the good writer, the reading back is essential in providing a clearer picture of what the next point should be; the past literally frames the future. A poorly organised grammar would make that reading fuzzy, and seriously disrupt that sequencing process. It would create moments of incertitude with where the next thought should be directed. In a timed high stakes examination, despite the unconscious focus on content over style, it is little wonder that students then produce poor content: their working memories have become overloaded BY THE DISORGANISATION. I doubt struggling students would even be aware that they have robbed Peter to pay Paul, but Judas has come and taken the lot.

This seems an appropriate analogy:

Just as fluent lower order phonological processes assist reading comprehension by reducing the demand placed on attention of decoding, so skilled spelling assists written expression by enabling the student to attend to the higher order process of expressing ideas lucidly.

Singer, B., and Bashir, A. (2004). Developmental variations in writing. In Stone, C.A., Silliman, E.R., Ehren, B.J., and Apel, K. (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders, pp. 559-582. New York: Guilford.

I’ve talked before about the benefits of teaching grammar as a dedicated explicit discipline, but if the veracity of the claim made at the beginning of the post becomes validated by research, then it most certainly would demand a stronger emphasis on making grammar a dedicated and much more considered ingredient of any literacy programme. As a minimum, if we are able to develop students’ knowledge of grammar to automaticity, so its use facilitates dedicated attention solely on the development of ideas and points in a discussion, I think we will see a large improvement in the quality of transactional writing across the boards.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational discussions and English teaching resources.

WHAT A POLEMIC ARGUMENT MODEL LOOKS LIKE

This is the second part of a post about transactional writing and utilising the power of the contrasting subordinator HOWEVER. The first post is here. In this post, I will provide a model of the technique being used for a question given in a typical GCSE writing exam.

This is part of a letter that appeared in a newspaper: 

‘I can’t understand why we have pets. They can be expensive to look after, they take up lots of time, children want them then get tired of them, yet if you dare to say you would never have a pet, people think you are strange.  I would never have one.’ 

Write a letter to the newspaper giving your views on this subject.  

How to go about answering this using a polemic argument as a base

1st job is planning 

  1. Separate the points provided by the question – there should be 4. 
  2. Decide if you will agree with the point of view about pets or disagree – you could have a mix of opinions. 
  3. Come up with the opposing view for each point – some points may have several ‘angles’ to follow up on.

Let’s imagine you are against the letter – in other words, you disagree with the points raised. Decide on the opposing argument for each point. 

Point 1 Point details Things person believes make pets expensive Your argument against 
Expensive  Vets     
 Food and care (cages, bedding toys, etc)     
 Buying to begin with     

Putting it all together 

However, …………………………………………………………………….…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Now let’s do the same for the next point about them being expensive: food and other costs.

Another thing that can make pets expensive is the cost of food and keeping the pets, like cages or baskets. This can put pressure on the family budget.

 However,……………………………………… ………… ………… …………………………………………………………………… …………… ……… … …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Now let’s do the same for the next point about them being expensive: buying them to begin with. Copy the format above.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… …………………………………………………………………… …………… ……… …

Now we’ll move onto the second major point: they take up too much time.

Point 2 Point details Things person believes make pets expensive Your argument against
Take up too much time          
         
         

What is happening is a development of a strong case against the person who dislikes pets. But crucially, their perspective is acknowledged, and countered with sensible and logical responses. It is indeed the polemic argument in poetic motion. The number of points and discussions will be governed by the amount of time in the assessment, but a gradual building of writing stamina is advised for struggling writers. This can be achieved by building resilience with small but important successes, having students tackle the first point only, and giving them a time limit that is gradually reduced with each new attempt. Then the second discussion would be expected, again with varying time limits once mastery is achieved. And so on…

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.

A GRAMMAR SEQUENCE – what it looks like

This is part 2 of developing grammar knowledge. Part 1 is here.

Knowing where to begin a sequence of learning grammar in secondary school is a difficult one, for a variety of reasons:

  • a teacher’s picture of what a student knows and brings into the yr 7 classroom may be incomplete. * The expectations of knowledge are at the bottom of the post, but also see James Durran’s blog which discusses the literacy gap.
  • the existence of a detailed sequential scheme of learning is difficult to find. Daisy Christodoulou’s seminal work ‘Making good progress’ identifies the need to design learning sequences that provide practice of tasks that may not reflect the final summative task, but in fact are individual components that make up the whole. She writes specifically about grammar design here. There are of course a limitless number of resources available online dealing with every aspect of grammar, but I am yet to find anything that takes a student step by step through word classes in a logical and functional manner, and/or does so in a way that doesn’t suffer from the curse of knowledge (the idea that when you know something it is difficult to imagine others not knowing it, which can interfere with teaching something to adequate depth). This is important – i hope to goodness that i am wrong, but I am not aware of a functional approach to grammar (which i espouse) that is connected to a specific scheme of learning. I’ve seen lots of examples of how functional grammar can be applied, but not an actual scheme that could be incorporated into a real curriculum.
  • some don’t value the power of teaching grammar as a distinct discipline
  • building a scheme into a curriculum may interfere with the core content, and as time is everthing’s enemy, takes a significant backseat in most English classrooms.
  • as a corollary, lots of schemes actually don’t include grammar as a focus.

I talked about the power of grammar in the last post, as a tool that strengthens a student’s control of language and improves the feedback process with significantly more explicit direction. I also truly believe that understanding grammar significantly helps with punctuation, especially helping to elimate the dreaded comma splice and the equally as frustrating fragmented sentence. But without any shadow of a doubt, a successful grammar curriculum must be assiduously designed so that it is sequential, incrementally moving a student forward once mastery of each element is achieved.

To that end, I have created such a scheme, and am in the process of creating the resources to match. I have provided an example of how mastery would be achieved with each element.

Here is a short video of the whole scheme. What you will hopefully notice is the progression style of each element. As much as possible, one element blends into another:

The sequence is the following:

  • ​​Nouns​
  • Determiners​
  • Subject + object​
  • Verb forms​
  • Finite verbs​
  • Auxiliary verbs​
  • Modal verbs​
  • Clauses​
  • Conjunctions​
  • Adjectives ​
  • Relative clauses
  • Adverbs​
  • Phrases​
  • Prepositions​
  • Participles 

The sequence is broken into distinct sections, and the teacher would, depending on where they begin, teach each element and then provide activities for students to master their knowledge of the respective element.

Section A: begins by explaining the various types of nouns, and how determiners are used to introduce certain nouns. The subject of a sentence is then taught as this is essential for the understanding of what constitutes a clause.  

Section B: introduces the concept of a verb. The 5 main forms of verb are discussed. The reason for going into depth here rather than simply encouraging students to say that all verb forms are merely ‘verbs’ is that each of the forms serves a particular purpose in our language, and so a secure knowledge of each assists them in being more precise with their language. The great bonus of this is that the teacher can then provide more precise feedback to students. 

The distinction between finite and non-finite verb forms is made clear, which allows for a discussion about tense, and how and why we must use the correct tense. Auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs are presented to assist the understanding of tense. 

Section C: introduces how nouns and verbs are used in combination to form sentences primarily via clauses. Main and subordinate explanations provide opportunities to discuss conjunctions, both coordinating and subordinating, and what rules we use to punctuate both compound and complex sentences.  

Section D: introduces modifiers. The scheme begins by discussing adjectival and adverbial clauses. In terms of adjectival, the common use of relative clauses is explained and restricted and non-restricted clauses are explained; an important consideration for punctuation.  

Section E: introduces how non-finite verbs are used to create phrases. The 4 main types of phrases are explained, and how they are used as modifiers. Prepositions are defined, and lots of attention is given to participles. Participle phrases are highly effective modifiers, and the adjectival nature of past and present participles is explored. As well as this, the adaptive nature of participles explains how they are used in the passive voice, as well as in combination with auxiliary verbs in 9 of the 12 tenses

APPROACHING MASTERY 

Where your students enter the scheme is of course determined by their prior knowledge, but upon entering, each element MUST begin as though the student is a novice, and therefore assessment of the new element MUST only test that element. Isolating assessment is crucial to not only prevent cognitive overload, but also so you can see any errors that arise, and if more activities to achieve mastery are needed. Students MUST master each component of grammar before moving onto the next stage of the sequence. This is crucial.  The table below illustrates this design, with the scheme beginning with proper nouns, and designed activities that incrementally build knowledge. The number of errors to check understanding embedded in each activity would remain roughly consistent, and each element ends with a summative assessment combining the various types of questions that could be asked of the element. As you can see, by the time the summative test is issued at the end of this element (sentence example), a secure knowledge of proper nouns would be certain.

What is essential is that there is an adequate number of activities to achieve mastery. This means creating a bank of resources for each element, a process I have begun, but which will obviously take some time to complete. For example, as illustrated below, if a student needs 10 activities to master the element, then 10 activities must exist. This would be an unusually high number however, as the incremental design should naturally eradicate this occurence.

SO HOW CAN I EMBED THIS INTO MY CURRICULUM?

The road to mastery is not a short one. Daisy Christodoulou discusses the difference between a spiral curriculum and a mastery approach here, espousing the benefits of the latter succinctly, and convincingly. Beginning the grammar scheme as soon as possible in secondary school would be the ideal, utilising SATS tests as a baseline (see Sarah Barker’s blog on this), in combination with other measures. Some older year groups may begin the scheme near its end, with participles for example, with students having already demonstrated security in every previous element. Teachers may wish to use the scheme as an intervention tool, arming interventionist staff with a deliberate approach to bringing students up to speed, so they can begin to analyse and use language in classes with increased confidence.

How you deliver the content is up to you. Where possible, the reason for the existence of the grammatical function would be explicitly explained to the students. Why are there nouns? etc. There are cues to this in the scheme, but the teacher would add their spin on the reasons. Advisably, a strong focus on contextual grammar would be best, as superbly illustrated here by James Durran, but of course this can only happen once the form has initially been taught. You may adapt activities to reinforce mastery with examples from respective texts you are studying, but remember that the design of the activities is still crucial in terms of minimising extraneous load. Either way, constant discussion in class about the elements already covered would significantly assist in students encoding the knowledge. Empowering students with the technical language to discuss the functional grammar used in texts you are studying I think makes teaching those texts infintely more enjoyable, as you get a step closer to being truly able to evaluate the meanings contained within.

The important consideration however, is that you can’t cheat the process of developing grammar knowledge. The power it provides students is irrefutable, but you simply can’t rush the process, or skip parts of the sequence. Learning gaps will result if you do, and we end up with the current state of serious and debilitating VSSPS issues at GCSE level.

NEXT STEPS

The ultimate aim is to add videos to help explain each element, maximising the process of dual coding, and then have the activities embedded into an adaptive learning platform, so students are AUTOMATICALLY directed and guided depending on their success rates to the relevant section in the course. Stay tuned!

*Below is the Yr 6 Curriculum signalling expectations of grammar knowledge:

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching and general educational resources and discussions.

A GRAMMAR SEQUENCE – why we need it

It is not an accident or platitude that primary school students are taught grammar, and to an impressive degree too. Teaching grammar literally equips students with an understanding of the building blocks of language, the tool that we use extensively, and would be utterly lost without. In primary, the teaching of grammar is a mixture of form and function, the distinction well explained here by Bas Aarts, with functionality, inextricably connected to context, deemed as the superior strategy. The quantitative nature of SATS however anecdotally fixates attention more on form, mostly in Yr 6, rendering it a practice that many believe to be incongruent to the ideal. It may be, worryingly so, earlier for some.

Being pragmatic, both foci offer secondary teachers a significant opportunity to harness the incredibly important work done by primary teachers. Unfortunately, this opportunity seems to be rarely taken up. There exists a great irony in the recent spotlight into curriculum design that doesn’t take heed of what students bring to the table from primary education*. Issues in getting the transition right and avoiding the ‘wasted years‘ is intelligently discussed here by James Durran. It is certainly not an easy thing to get right, especially when students may arrive from a multitude of feeder schools, but having a better understanding of what a student already knows as they enter a Yr 7 classroom has got to be a step in the right direction. A recent post by Sarah Barker raises the possibility of teachers gaining more precise awareness of prior-knowledge in English, with access to specific breakdowns of errors available to secondary teachers:

Of course, all of the information is practically pointless if what students know is not going to be built upon. Yes, grammar, punctuation and spelling are perennial areas of concern, and make up a substantial ratio of an English GCSE grade, but how much focus is actually given to them as discreet components of language development? Or are they simply add-ons to the core of what we teach, with greater attention given to a more contextualised focus on language meaning?

It is my contention that a rigorous grammar focus would significantly improve schoolwide literacy as well as language analysis and expression in the English classroom.

Teaching grammar in secondary school has potency. Continuing the empowerment inducted into primary students with the knowledge of how our language is constructed not only provides opportunity for students to read and comprehend increasingly complex written information with understanding, and hence enjoyment, in almost all subjects, but it also gives them a platform from which to build, shape and refine their own writing.

Be Explicit!

Explicitly and continuously directing students to the functionality of grammar in everything they are exposed to is a sure way to help students achieve automaticity in parsing language. James Durran’s blog on doing so is a must read for all KS3 teachers, in which he beseeches teachers to discuss grammar contextually, continuously drawing students’ attention to the purpose and meaning of the language use. Explicit grammar teaching also significantly assists in providing explicit feedback to students’ writing, as you are able to suggest more refined and precise instructions for improvement. It is far superior to say to a student, ‘Would that sentence be better if you added a more interesting adverb to that subordinate clause?’, or ‘I think an appositive would improve the description in the sentence’, or to assist in punctuation, ‘Why do you have a comma placed between two independent clauses?’, or ‘Can you use a semi-colon there if the second section is a phrase and not a clause?’

This sentiment echoes the great Tom Needham, who adds to the invocation of Doug Lemov when he says: Although I want my students to be able to name these particular parts of a sentence, most importantly I want them to use them. While there may be disagreement about the ‘correct’ name to give these (absolute phrases seem to be known as ‘nominative absolutes’ as well as ‘noun phrases . . . combined with participles’), we still need a name to give them if we are to discuss, analyse and practice them, creating what Lemov refers to as ‘a shared language for your team’ p.66. If we have this shared language, we are able to minimise confusion and be precise, allowing us to create focussed practice activities.

Essentially, my belief is that having a better grasp of the science of our language will ultimately help in understanding and producing the art of our language.

How to integrate a grammar scheme

Well, that’s the next post… here.

*Below is the Yr 6 Curriculum signalling expectations of grammar knowledge:

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching and general educational resources and discussions.