Like every other English teacher, I am endlessly in pursuit of that thing which will unlock textual meaning for GCSE students – the elusive holy grail of language. How can I make students see what I can see? How do we move students from novice reading and meaning making to the sharp identification of effect and perceptive analysis?
We are often guilty of trying to do too much and, as a result, we achieve very little. We look for strategies that will illuminate the way for our students, often by way of a short cut, in order to get them to the finish line. The problem is we can leave students no more able to cope with the demands of an unseen text than they were at the start of a course. What we may have constructed is an elaborate methodology to deconstruct the questions and hastily stuff learned segments of language back in. Students may follow these instructions to the letter but will still frequently reveal glaring errors suggesting that little sense has been made of the text. I wrote about this here and reflected on the issue we have when students grab at imagery, methods or language. Without seeing the whole, the detail will never make sense.
As is the twitter way, three events helped to crystallise my thinking on this and develop an approach that is more practical and, in my view, profoundly simple: 1. Carl Hendrick tweeted a link to a research paper on the importance of ‘just reading’. I found and read the paper and summarise the key ideas here, 2. I listened to Jennifer Webb talk about starting with the literal in literature for her Seneca English Conference talk, which can be accessed here, 3. I taught 4 lessons with real life Y10 students and tried it out.
The ‘Just Reading’ paper (Westbrook, Sutherland, Oakhill, Sullivan, 2018) presents a persuasive argument for allowing students to read a text in class without relentless pausing to complete extension tasks. These could halt comprehension rather than support and enrich it. Through a fast reading approach, students were able to hold ‘the whole’ in place and make inferences and predictions.
This concept of ‘holding the whole in place’ (apologies for coining a poor phrase – I don’t expect it to catch on!) reminds us of the most basic requirement in English teaching – comprehension. Without this, things fall apart. Students need to actually, factually report what happens in the text before making suggestions about what a word like ‘tremendous’ conveys (which could, let’s face it, be one of any number of things: loud? gigantic? monumental? amazing?).
So, I took a Language Paper 1 and focused on Q4, the evaluation question. We used the opening of OMAM, chosen by the 2nd in dept (a brilliant choice given that these were the first face-to-face lessons students have had for 3 months – familiar enough to reassure, yet challenging in the form of a GCSE paper). The question was this:
and the section of the text is this:
We have covered this question several times in Y10 and had often focused on gathering quotations to prove the statement, then make inferences about the quotations. This can be problematic. Students may be hard wired to seek and destroy ‘neon’ phrases and imagery because they think it gives them more to say. However, really perceptive responses may identify aspects of the relationship hidden deep in mundane and pedestrian language.
Step 1 was to ask the students to actually/factually/literally map what happens in this text that relates to the men and their relationship. They generated a list of around 8-10 points. What was great was that all students managed this, all students came up with a list that was pretty similar. The list looked like this:
- Walked in single file
- Both were dressed the same
- Description of the first man – small, quick
- description of the second man – huge, opposite
- First man stopped, second nearly fell into him
- First man sweating a lot, second man desperate for water
- First man shouts, second man ignores him
- First man shouts again and refers to last night.
Step 2 was to focus on the points and decide what we thought they showed. We focused on the first two points – ‘walked in single file’ and ‘both were’ dressed the same. Students immediately identified that, in most circumstances, walking in single file was unusual – this could be a problematic relationship. They also teased out that the men were apart and distant. We then looked at how we could understand their dress and the students offered ‘similarity’ and ‘connection’. The students were edging towards the sense of juxtaposition with the men deeply bonded together yet separate.
Step 3 & 4 students noticed the methods used (eg. repetition of ‘both’, descriptive adjectives etc.) but were not led by them. Instead, they were led by the whole, the meaning and comprehension of what happened. Students also considered what was the most skilful and we decided the opening was subtle and clever.
This actually, factually approach gave every student a way in to the question and text. It also helped some to draw fairly sophisticated conclusions about what the text revealed.
I used a similar strategy with Q3 on structure and, again, found students were able to ‘see’ structure in a much clearer way – focusing them on what actually happened before they went looking for structure techniques.
It is certainly an approach to pursue and develop in September, especially to support students who find interpretation and inference difficult. I’m starting to become convinced that the answer has been literally staring us in the face all the time. Comprehension is the holy grail we’ve been looking for – Inference and Analysis’ poor cousin.