Every English teacher has a student like Natalie. Whether she is in year 7 or 11, she is a walking grade 9 waiting to happen. You can see it shine through everything she writes. The stark truth is that students like Natalie enact a self-fulfilling prophecy almost regardless of the quality of her English teachers.
Students like Natalie possess a seemingly hidden wealth of background knowledge about literature and the world around her that has deepened like a coastal shelf from a very young age. She possesses a word wealth that sees her writing labelled with praise-worthy synonyms like “flair, “creative” or “inventive”. She attends events and is rewarded with opportunities that expand her gains.
We also teach students like Daniella. Though she may try as hard as anyone, the gaps in Daniella’s knowledge see her efforts stunted and limited to the realms of a grade 3. When faced with a page of Dickens, without a grasp of the genre of the ghost story, knowledge of religion or a host of intricate vocabulary, she struggles not just to remember quotes, but to understand the words at all. Daniella struggles to make the connections that Natalie undertakes with seeming effortlessness.
As stated by the guru of English teachers, Geoff Barton, we need to “make the implicit explicit“. This means unpicking the knowledge of the world and words known by students like Natalie, combined with her writing skill. It will require our understanding the salient differences in knowledge and skills between students like Natalie and Daniella.
English teachers are a resilient bunch. With relatively little support, we have been busy devising new English Language and English Language GCSEs programmes. A glaring problem faced by many English teachers is that the prerequisites for our students’ success are developed over a much longer period than the new GCSE qualification (inside and outside of the classroom), and so teaching at KS3 has become vitally important for GCSE success more than ever before.
We are then faced with the dual challenge of developing a two year programme that gets students exam-ready (Short2), with a five year programme (Long5) that truly develops highly skilled readers and writers who can flourish undertaking the new, harder qualifications. We are left needing to combine short-term wins, with long-term stratagems.
By building upon our growing understanding of the science of learning, combined with principles of curriculum design and expert domain knowledge, we can begin to shrink the distance between Natalie and Daniella. We can distil this crucial knowledge into a sequence of key principles for teaching, learning and curriculum planning.
1.’The Big Picture’
Examiners lament how students are unable to write confidently about the “big themes” of texts. This is unsurprising, given it requires a vast wealth of literature knowledge to see the ‘big picture’. From year 7, we can delve into the rich history of our language to help children create a substantial ‘mental model‘ (or schema) of our literary tradition: its common themes and ideas. In year 11, though it performs no direct route into a singular exam question, we should ask ‘what connects the texts we have studied?’ For example, how does ‘charity‘ connect the Inspector in ‘An Inspector Calls’ with Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’?
2. ‘The Study of Structure’
Many of the toughest exam questions at GCSE are centred on the structure of texts. The issue here is that students like Daniella simply don’t have a well developed ‘mental model‘ of genre and text structure. They don’t know what they’re looking for. Even the simple narrative elements of a ‘beginning, middle and end’ can be taken for granted in our teaching. We need to help our students first understand the ‘big picture’ of texts and genre, before then seeing that in microcosm in extracts. Once we begin to make explicit the choices a writer is making, within the common parameters of genre and reader expectations, we help students write about a writers methods with something like the confidence of Natalie.
3. What is in a Word?
We know that the KS2 reading examination is predominantly a test of how well children make inferences from words and phrases within a text. By the time our students reach year 11, they have to recall a hoard of quotations at will, whilst making multiple inferences from individual words, phrases, symbols and more (see my blog on ‘Teaching A Christmas Carol‘ for an exploration of ‘word consciousness‘). Still, both English Language and Lit exams demand our students focus on making inferences. Students like Natalie see patterns everywhere, from familiar idioms and metaphors, to common prefixes and word roots. She find multiple meanings everywhere, making connections and building meaning into coherent arguments. For Daniella, her vocabulary is limited, so no matter how many quotes she can struggle to remember, her analysis of them ultimately proves thin and limited. Juggling that complex task in our memory is the stuff of a successful English student.
4. Rhetoric and Power
Examiners have complained that students are going to town with literary terms, with very little understanding of their purpose or effect. The study of rhetoric, of course, is much more than a series of fancy labels that our students learn to emblazon their essays with limited understanding (a great handbook of those devices can be found HERE). A child like Natalie may use rhetoric devices intuitively, given she has read an array of non-fiction, discussed and debated around the dinner table, and much more. For Natalie, naming the rhetorical devices gives a sequence of labels to better describe how she has written for years. She will select just the right word choice to convey her point with power. Daniella though needs to be exposed to a legion of good models of rhetoric, before undertaking as much meaningful practice as possible. It is the modelling the really matters for Daniella in her writing – the labels less so. In the English Language exam, we see a test of rhetorical writing (much with a flush of ‘purple prose’), but it can be meaningfully taught.
5. Excellent Essay Writing
Teenagers are, shall we say, ‘reluctant’ to plan. Of course, the hardest bit is having a meaningful, well-developed argument, which is why we come back to points 1, 2 and 3. Highly skilled essay writing then becomes a matter of executing a well-honed structure [See below for a basic but effective model] and an ear for an ‘academic code’. Students like Natalie are adept at code-switching to the more formal style of essay writing, whereas Daniella writes a lot like how she speaks. The subtle nuances of nominalisation, the use of the active and passive voice, and a judicious use of discourse markers, becomes a formula for success.
Short-term Wins and Long-term Stratagems
Defining the key aspects of knowledge, understanding and skill required to flourish in the new GCSEs, just like Natalie, then comes down to artful planning. In an ideal world, every student would have a five-year run up to the new qualifications. We don’t live in an ideal world. Instead then, we need to convert the five key principles into strategies to use in the short-term, right up to the eve of the exams, as well as strategies that we can develop and sustain throughout KS3 and KS4.