More on ‘The 10 Whys’: Macbeth

I have to (tentatively) say, working on the ’10 Whys’ with my students has been one of the most significant developments in the quality of their writing since time began. Although they are in that clumsy, liminal space where they need to refine their expression, many have got what we mean by analytical, exploratory, perceptive. Some students are running with this and some are piecing it together. All, though, have an awareness of the depth  required in a higher level answer, and now have a road map of how they get there.

Here’s what I’ve been doing – this time with Macbeth:

  1. I followed exactly the same process with my Y11 as I did with Y10 and J&H. The full post is here. In short, students worked in pairs to answer a series of questions to tease out their ideas of why Shakespeare made the choices he did. We then took those responses and looked at modelled crafted sentences that expressed those ideas. These are below:
  • Shakespeare reveals the lengths people will go to in order to obtain power.
  • Shakespeare depicts the horror of guilt and remorse, embodied in the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
  • Shakespeare uses the witches to evoke a dark and sinister atmosphere. Shakespeare  uses the witches to appeal to King James’ interest in ‘Deaemonologie’. Shakespeare forces the audience to question whether Macbeth acts of his own free will, or is being guided by a supernatural force.
  • Shakespeare exposes Macbeth’s emptiness and isolation after the murder. He experiences no joy or satisfaction from becoming king.
  • Shakespeare employs the theme of appearance and reality to examine the central paradox of the play – that nothing is what it seems.
  • Shakespeare uses Lady Macbeth to embody uncontrolled ambition. He uses her decisiveness to juxtapose with Macbeth’s conflict.
  • Shakespeare uses the natural world and natural order to emphasises how wrong Macbeth’s actions are.
  • Shakespeare positions Macbeth as a worthy and heroic character in the opening of the play so that his downfall is more tragic.
  • Shakespeare establishes a clear moral order by concluding the play with the deaths of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
  • Shakespeare utilities the motifs of light and dark to allude to the struggle between good and evil.

2. Once students have recovered from the fact that the third ‘Why’  has three different points, I move on to setting this as a homework task. Students learn the statements through self-quizzing and are then tested in class. This process of memorisation means that the language begins to become owned by the student.

3. We then went back to the ingredients of a paragraph, to re-set what they need to write. I attended Louisa Enstone’s talk ‘Stop PEE-ing’ many years ago at rED Swindon, which was a true lightbulb moment for me. There is no doubt that the more reductive and simple we make the writing process for students, the simpler the writing becomes. This precludes students from ever moving through the higher bands on the mark scheme.  Students do though need a sense of structure, so focusing paragraphs on the following has helped:

  • Point/thesis/idea statement relating to the Q
  • Embedded evidence + methods
  • Close language analysis
  • Link to the whole text and relate back to extract
  •  Why?

This is not acronym-ised. It is learned. Every time we write a paragraph, this list goes up on the board. Every time I walk around the class and check paragraphs, I ask students which bit have they missed. Every time we look at models, we identify elements of this structure. The models below are based on shared/student/teacher writing and respond to Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 1 ‘Is this a dagger…’ How does Shakespeare portray Macbeth as a strong and villainous character?

4. So, now we have a routine when we write extract based essays is consistently repeated. It goes like this:

  1. Read question, circle key word, brainstorm 3-4 synonyms – triggers to help us focus on on the right language.
  2. Read extract – actively (judiciously!) highlight language associated to the key word and trigger/synonym words.
  3. Plan. Look at language highlighted. Organise language into three clear groups/points. Determine methods, consider links to other parts of the text/context/whys?/alternative interpretation to the question etc.
  4. Write.
  5. Check.

We are still in the early stages, but results are quite exciting. Higher ability students seem more confident to use their own voice and offer alternative interpretations. Weaker and less confident students are extending their writing and exploring ideas more thoroughly. Most importantly, students are starting to express something of value and depth. The examples below are un-scaffolded, un-supported, independent homework responses (before the feedback PPT slides above).




I would argue that the combination of two things has driven this improvement. Firstly, the explicit teaching of the Whys has opened up a deeper level of analysis. I am no longer wishing students will get it by themselves. As teachers, we ‘get it’ by ourselves, but only as a result of years of studying literature. Symbolism and tropes become so obvious, they metaphorically slap us round the face. Novice readers are often ‘blind’ to this. The whys allow students to make links and connections within a text and between texts. Secondly, the use of routine frees up attention to concentrate on other things, such as quality of expression. I have attempted to use the same language and same process every time we write an essay. This, with the modelling, means that the process starts to be internalised and automatic. Continually and explicitly making students aware of the structure builds a metacognitive framework, which can be tested in low stakes, independent writing tasks.

Thanks for reading. Feedback is always welcome.





The 10 ‘whys’ of Jekyll and Hyde

Like many English teachers, I’ve come across the phrase ‘This makes the reader feel…’ many times. This fairly clunky, and often misattributed statement makes a sweeping judgement about readers, and often leads to a very thin point, which misses out analysis completely.

When I posted this in April, it led to some debate about whether we can ever claim to know an author’s intention. Michael Rosen and Phillip Pullman even got involved, through a series of sub tweets. I felt simultaneously proud and ignored. And, whilst it’s very true that we do not know what a writer ‘intended’ to do, we can confidently, with evidence to support, say what they have done (whether it was the intention or not). Of course, this will vary from one reader to the next, but far better to teach students to make confident and assertive statements about what the writer has done (with the implication of it being for them as the reader), than encourage students to make sweeping generalisations about a reader’s feelings.

With the aim to edge students towards a deeper analysis I set about creating my own list of ‘whys’. Every time students offered close word analysis, I kept pushing them to go further and explain ‘why’.  Below is my list of 10 ‘whys’ for Jekyll and Hyde:

Stevenson exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian society
Stevenson argues against repression of mankind
Stevenson reveals conditions of working class London
Stevenson uses fog to create a gothic atmosphere and to symbolise all that is concealed
Stevenson depicts the Victorian sense of urban terror
Stevenson employs light and dark to convey struggle between good and evil
Stevenson reveals the struggle that emerged between religion and science
Stevenson reflects on the role of privilege, indulgence and ego in self destruction
Stevenson highlights public anxieties about science and the ethics of discovery
Stevenson uses motifs of concealment to symbolise repression

At sentence level these ‘whys’ aim to model confident language of analysis, ambitious vocabulary and contextual information.

Simply giving these to students would have missed out what they already knew from the text. So, I gave pairs a series of questions to tease out as much information as they could. These were:

  1. What could the two personalities of Jekyll represent?
  2. Why does the novel end tragically ?
  3. Why does Stevenson include descriptions of the area Hyde lives in? What do they show?
  4. Why is the fog referred to throughout the novel?
  5. Why is the novel set in a city?
  6. What do the lamplights, that seem to flicker through the darkness, suggest?
  7. Why are the references science and religion relevant?
  8. Why is Jekyll wealthy and comfortable? Why is he not living in poverty?
  9. Why is Lanyon the person to witness the transformation and why does it seem significant that he dies?
  10. Why does Stevenson use motifs of windows, locks and doors?

After sharing responses, we looked at the exemplar ‘why’ sentences.  Students have been given these and are learning them. This will give them vocabulary and ideas which they can later build on in their writing, and lose the vague, empty, reader response phrases altogether.