The above quotation from E. Y (Yip) Harburg (the man behind the songs and music from The Wizard of Oz) sums up, with brilliant simplicity, the power of words.
Everything I’ve focused on so far this year has been about the meanings and messages inherent in words and how we get students to think about them.
For the last couple of years AO2 has been a weakness in the department. We tried close language analysis starters for a term but frequently ended up so derailed by the starter that the teaching was squeezed into 15 minutes at the end.
This year, inspired in part by the ‘What, Why, How’ revolution, I have changed my teaching to fully explore the importance of the word. What, Why, How enables students to approach analytical writing more fluidly than the restrictive PEE of old. However, a note of caution here, as I’ve already seen some mutilation and zombification of WWH doing the rounds on twitter. If we’re not careful, before we know it, WWH could become another version of PEE – with the same issues that came before: ‘Miss, what’s the What?’
What WWH does offer is a clear path to ‘what the writer is doing’. Identification of this is key and should come from the words, as well as any associated meanings and themes triggered by them.
Although WWH is preferable to PEE, I have probably more consistently asked students to tell me what meanings words have and supported them to explore these fully. This has meant a lot of very close language analysis, modelled over and over again. From looking at specific key quotations, themes naturally follow and become embedded in a student’s repertoire of what to look for. Here’s an example using Macbeth and Donalbain’s line ‘There’s daggers in men’s smiles’ below. The following list is what we extracted from 3 words:
- Daggers – connotations of pain, violence, murder – theme that echoes Macbeth’s violence at the beginning of the play.
- Daggers – plural unwittingly reveals the two daggers used to kill Duncan.
- Daggers – repeated motif– echoes the floating dagger of Macbeth’s soliloquy.
- Men‘s – plural – suggests that there would be many threats from many people.
- Men’s – plural -would have struck a chord with King James after discovering a large network of people were involved in his assassination attempt.
- Men’s – gender suggests only men are capable of murder – ironically and implicitly assumes Lady Macbeth’s innocence.
- Smiles – warmth, loyalty and honesty – juxtaposes the daggers.
- ‘daggers‘ + ‘smiles‘ – conveys duplicity and the theme of appearance versus reality.
- ‘daggers’ + ‘smiles’ – links to Lady Macbeth – ‘Look like the innocent flower but…’, Macbeth – ‘False face must hide…’ and the witches – ‘Fair is foul…’
Once we have explored everything from a single quotation, I model writing the points above until students seem confident to do it independently.
What they are learning is the importance of the words – how the words carry the themes, the context, the links, the effect etc. This, more than any other strategy I’ve used, has enabled students to write lengthy, detailed, thorough and perceptive paragraphs with a razor sharp focus on a single element – that also links backwards and forwards, in and out of theme and context.
Where this is most noticeable is with some of the less confident, low attaining students who now feel empowered to make a start. Articulating the associated meanings of the word ‘dagger’ is an accessible task and gives students a way in before moving on to relate these ideas to some of the bigger themes at play. Below is an example of a 15 minute response, written in class, without planning and using some of the key ideas discussed about the quotation. Although it does not follow any recognisable pattern of a paragraph structure, it does show detailed engagement with the ideas in the text and in the language. There is room for improvement (organisation, development of some ideas, articulation, context) but it explores – authentically, in the students’s own voice.
Sometimes, it is the very subtle and small shifts in our practice that have the most significant impact.