Tag Archives: English Language

On mark schemes and how they hinder good writing

Old vintage typewriter

A couple of years ago, I took almost nine months off work to write a novel. In spite of my booker-winning dreams, were I to weigh all the decisions I’ve made throughout my life, this one would not rank among the greatest. At the time, I was living in an expensive flat in West Hampstead and the novel itself was a stinker.

Why so bad? Because I tried to write it. What I mean by that is, I tried to write it. I was so conscious of my writing that I paid little attention to other considerations. Y’know, trifling things like character and plot. Worse, because I was so conscious of style, the style itself was awful. I mean truly hideous. I missed no opportunity to add an extra adjective or metaphor, and never did I use a simple word when a showy one would suffice.

So I know a little thing or two about bad writing. Today, however, I’m more interested in what it is that makes writing good. Unsurprisingly, given the above, this is something I ruminate on from time to time. What constitutes good writing is both complex and subjective, but there is one quality that all good writing has: control.

I’d define a writer with control as a writer whose language communicates the exact meaning he wishes. There is little room for ambiguity, unless the writer desires it, and even then, he is able to manipulate his words to mean (and not mean) precisely what he does (and does not) want them to.

A mark scheme for writing is, therefore, a problem. A mark scheme will necessarily reduce the amount of control a writer can have, because it will exert an unnatural influence over him. It will control him. It will say: “What you’re writing is irrelevant; good writing must tick these boxes, always.”

If you look at the paragraphs above, they would certainly attract reward using AQA’s GCSE mark scheme. We have rhetorical questions, punctuation for effect, some decent vocabulary, et cetera, et cetera. But the writing is also pretty plain. Save for one or two clichéd metaphors (“a stinker”) and too many rhetorical questions, I haven’t gone out of my way to add unnecessary literary flourishes. How often can you say that about writing that aims to pick up marks at GCSE? How often do you read through a few paragraphs without being battered by a tsunami of similes, metaphors, alliterations, or tricolons? Rarely.

Leaving aside the pupils for just a moment, it is also true, I think, that many an English teacher has been ruined by the GCSE mark schemes for writing. Sometimes, when I read a blog, article, or TES column, I cannot help but hear, underneath the sentences, a teacher who has taught to the GCSE mark scheme: “Open with a rhetorical question to engage your reader… Try and use a simile or metaphor in the first three sentences… Use a statistic to make your point feel valid.” Yawn. Of course, there are plenty of examples of excellent writing from English teachers on Twitter and in TES. But you get the idea. The tail is wagging the dog.

Content is king. It should dictate writing style, always. Form should be ruled by what the writer has to say; his message should not be subservient to the arbitrary considerations of style, especially those dictated by a poorly designed GCSE mark scheme. So, if we return to our pupils, we can see that this is important, because no writing, however “creative” the task, needs an overabundance of trite literary “techniques”; unnecessary literary flourishes are harmful to both clarity and style, yet the GCSE mark scheme mandates, for example, that pupils “sustain” their use of linguistic devices alongside a “wide range” of punctuation. But great writing doesn’t require endless linguistic devices and needless little marks cluttering up the page. By asking for this, the mark scheme not only places style over substance but also hinders that very same thing, stylish writing, that it is purporting to promote. Talk about boneheaded.

Now, let’s pause for a moment. Instead of creative writing, let’s consider a piece of analytical writing on, say, Romeo and Juliet. A pupil writes the following sentence: “Romeo is impulsive, immature, and sensitive.” Recently, I have read more than one blog in which teachers have written about how they have coached their pupils to write a sentence such as this. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, it’s a decent sentence. And I agree with you. It is a decent sentence. In isolation.

However, if this is a piece of analytical writing then the pupil’s use of a tricolon is misplaced. In terms of tone, it just doesn’t work. It’s too writerly. Rarely in analytical or academic writing would a writer use a tricolon such as this, because it would jar with the rest of the essay or paper. Further, unless he is a particularly skilled writer, by using the tricolon the pupil is likely to cause himself another, larger, problem. He will likely suffer issues with his paragraphing and structure.

In terms of structure, allow me first to acknowledge that a pupil might get away with using the tricolon above if he employs it as the beginning sentence of an essay. Assuming, that is, that the question asks specifically for a character analysis of Romeo. This works because, as readers, we assume that by placing this sentence first, the writer is indicating that his answer will focus in its entirety on these three traits.

Still, I would be cautious before recommending this to pupils as a strategy. Were they to do this in an exam, they risk getting themselves in a muddle, given that time pressure often forces pupils to follow where their ideas lead moment by moment. Too much specificity early on might prove counterproductive.

But let’s return to the issues with paragraphing and structure that tricolons will lead to. The tricolon above is almost certain to cause the pupil problems, because as soon as he mentions Romeo’s characteristics (impulsive, immature, sensitive) at any point other than the opening of his essay, he is obliged to address and analyse each of them there and then. This is because in an analytical essay, you can’t just mention things in passing. The effect of this is likely to be one of two undesirable outcomes: an average-length paragraph with superficial analysis, or a long, winding behemoth of a paragraph that is both confused and confusing.

An entire essay could be written on each of the characteristics that the pupil has identified—Shakespeare presents Romeo as immature. Discuss.—so to brush quickly over them is clearly a waste. Conversely, extending the paragraph will result in the pupil attempting to weave together too many ideas at once, and the threads of each will become tangled and lost. There’s too much cognitive load for both writer and reader.

If a pupil decides he wishes to write about these characteristics, then he is best to leave out the tricolon and address each individually, and the best way to do that is in separate paragraphs. This will allow him the time and space to make a decent attempt at communicating his ideas about each characteristic without muddling awkwardly between them. It will keep his writing clear, as well as his thoughts, which is necessary because their is considerable overlap between the two. Importantly, it will also allow a the pupil’s teacher or marker to follow his train of thought with ease.

Unfortunately, if the pupil chooses to use a tricolon in his essay, and if he also wishes to explore each idea within its own paragraph, as he writes he must clumsily flag to the reader which of Romeo’s aforementioned characteristics he is now referring to, with something along the lines of “Firstly, I will analyse how Romeo is impulsive”, before stuttering into his next paragraph with “Secondly, I will show how Romeo is immature.”

No. Just no.

As a writer, everything you write is a promise to your readers. As readers, we expect the words we read to be connected to both what has gone before and what is yet to come. If you flout this rule when you write, you lead us down blind-alleys and confuse us. We begin to lose the thread of your argument or analysis. However, writing also has an onward flow. It cannot constantly reference what has been said already and what will be said shortly, otherwise that flow is broken. Navigating this can be tricky, but skilful writers, writers with control, do it seamlessly.

This is why the ticolon is problematic in academic writing, which is about explaining and analysing information, not about sprinkling beauty through the use of detail or persuading through the use rhythm and repetition. These are the things that a tricolon is best at doing, but in academic writing, you should not pause to linger over something whimsical, nor should you aggressively repeat your point to leave it ringing in the ears of an audience. To use a tricolon in academic writing will not achieve either of these things, but it will disrupt the order in which information is presented, and so will often result in turgid prose, because the writer must constantly pause to remind readers where he has been and where he is going.

This obsession with linguistic features is surely a knock-on effect of mark schemes and their diktats about what must be present for writing to be good. Like any art form, what is good is context specific. For example, I’m rather partial to a Caravaggio painting, but I wouldn’t hang a print of ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ above my dinner table. Similarly, though I enjoy the music of Wu-Tang Clan, I’d think twice about blasting ‘Protect Ya Neck’ through my car speakers when picking up a girl for a first date.

When the mark scheme for writing is adversely affecting literary analysis, you know you have a problem. But what’s the solution? Well, comparative judgement looks promising. If examiners were simply presented with two scripts and told to choose which is best, then we get do away with writing mark schemes altogether.

While I’m tearing things up, I would also do away with the current grading system. In place of grades, pupils would be assigned a percentile score. This would be based on where their writing falls in comparison to everyone else’s once the judgement process has been completed.

All this would certainly be a leap into the dark. It would risk the same problems that occurred following “life after levels”, whereby the vast majority of schools passed up the opportunity to redesign their assessment practices, opting instead to rebrand levels and sub-levels, which many had complained so bitterly about, with names such as “steps” or “progress points”. Perhaps, in a similar way, schools would simply reproduce these god-awful mark schemes and camouflage them as “success criteria” to inform teaching prior to the exams.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, this might initiate a large-scale conversation about what actually constitutes good writing. Perhaps it would remove any sense of a cap at the top end. Perhaps it would encourage pupils to aim higher and higher, and so perhaps their writing would improve and improve. Perhaps, when unshackled from the mark scheme, teachers would be free to help pupils produce genuinely high-quality pieces writing. Perhaps, just perhaps.

Some stuff I think I know… after one year of teaching

Here’s a collection of nine random thoughts  with no particular connection, logic, or order, as I come to the end of my first year’s teaching…

1. It seems like no one cares about explanations…

This I have found rather confusing: the idea that we shouldn’t really tell the kids anything. In fact, I think it’s insane. Insane. I mean, come on, whether you’re “prog” or “trad”, prefer direct instruction or discovery, at some point you have to explain stuff. Ultimately, there’s information in my head that I must get into the kids’. That’s the essence of teaching, surely? I know, for example, how Shelley’s manipulation of the sonnet form works to create meaning in Ozymandias. It’s a chunk of knowledge that exists amongst a whopping swamp of litter and junk in my brain. The challenge is to remove it from my murky mind-swamp then deposit it into the kids’, preferably while leaving all the other crap behind.

Whether I write out information and hide it in envelopes around the room, or I stand at the front of a class and explain it, I’m using words to explain concepts. Not once this year have I encountered any CPD or training that focussed on the quality of explanations or the different approaches to explaining. But there are so many questions we should ask: What is the ideal method to communicate this information? When should I use analogies? Might this analogy confuse matters? How should I harness the power of stories? When are stories appropriate? What is the best definition of this concept? In which situations is it best to provide a definition prior to a clarifying example? In which situations post? Which potential misconceptions should I address during the course of this explanation? And so on and so on.

I reckon explanation might be the most important part of the craft. A clear explanation provides knowledge and understanding, but an unclear explanation doesn’t simply prevent this, it actively creates a barrier against it occurring in the future, by embedding confusion that must be unpicked at a later date. I don’t know about anyone else but I spend a whole heap of time honing my explanations. If there’s one Edu-book I wish I owned, it is this: “How to Explain Concepts in English”. Actually, I’ll write that book in future. So don’t pinch my idea. My lawyers are at the ready.

2. The whole prog v trad thing is so cringe…
Given my approach to teaching, other people might say I’m a bit “trad”. But I would never label myself as such. Mainly because I’m not a seven year old geek, so I don’t behave like one.

There are genuine debates. Important debates. But childish labels cheapen them. They also make it much easier for people to dismiss your views. Better to stick with evidence, I’d say.

3. ‘Literacy’ should replace English Language in Bucket 1…
The English Language qualification is not fit for purpose. I’d replace it with a literacy qualification that is more along the lines of literacy skills test that teachers have to take. There are problems with that test, but, in the main, I think they can be overcome. Most importantly, some extended writing must be included. I would also have writing assessed at the sentence-level; in the final analysis, a great writer has the ability to construct and combine great sentences.

If this were to work, garnering more agreement on the rules of punctuation and grammar would be essential. Remember, written communication is a human invention, and it is, therefore, within our power to agree on a set of rules. In this way, grammar and punctuation are similar to money and laws. Money only works because we assign agreed values to random bits of paper, so long as they are marked with the correct squiggles. Similarly, laws only work because we agree to follow them and accept that we must be punished if we don’t. Grammar and punctuation are the currency and laws of language.

We would also need to think carefully about how we test reading and comprehension. Background knowledge is hugely important to reading, scientists have demonstrated. Currently, the reading sections of the English Language qualification is, to a large extent, a general knowledge test. Broad general knowledge is an admirable goal of education. But it should be tested in a General Knowledge exam, not a reading exam. And it gives a huge bias to pupils with more cultural capital. Or, put another way, it disadvantages the disadvantaged. In a literacy exam, we could instead test decoding. If this sounds too basic, take look at the number of pupils who leave secondary school illiterate.

If we want to test comprehension/inference/implicit/explicit etc. then a specified body of knowledge from which the comprehension extract is selected would improve matters. It wouldn’t eradicate the problem of cultural capital, but if all children have the same opportunity to swot up on the body of knowledge in advance it at least begins to flatten the field.

4. History should also be in Bucket 1…
Since you can’t understand the present without knowing the past, History should be included in Bucket 1. And if the goal of education is “broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation” (Amanda Spielman), and if “there are some things that all pupils are entitled to know when they leave school,” (Stuart Lock) then historical knowledge is essential.

Why? Because it is perhaps unlikely that the knowledge and discoveries that will lead us to these lofty goals is being thought, invented, or said right here, right now, in this very classroom, for the first time ever, while simultaneously being discovered in many other classrooms all over the country. And since an unforeseen orgy of enlightenment, led by led by the nation’s teenagers, hasn’t erupted out of the blue and overtaken our schools, every subject is, in essence, history. We’re studying books that have already been written, influenced by previous books and influencing subsequent books. That’s history. We’re learning mathematical stuff that some dudes and dudettes discovered in the past. That’s history. We’re looking at scientific ideas that have already been proven. That’s history.

And a broad knowledge of what is traditionally considered “History” (wars, kings, revolutions et cetera) gives a good background to all the various subject-specific histories, making them more understandable and accessible, because it allows a skeleton narrative to form in a person’s mind, off which other information can hang.

Ideally, all pupils should read Andrew Matt’s History of the World. Is it academic? No. Is it authoritative? No. Is it accessible? Yes. Does it give a broad and accessible explanation of how humanity went from spears in Africa to 21st Century “global village”? Yes. Children should absolutely leave school understanding that, right?

5. We waste most of our time on irrelevant flim-flam…
I think they’re are really only about six questions teachers should ask themselves prior to a lesson:

  1. What information do the pupils need to know?
  2. What is the best way to present this information to ensure they understand it
  3. Which methods will best help them retain this information?
  4. What is the best way assess whether they’ve retained this information?
  5. In what ways will they need to use or apply this information?
  6. Is there anything I need to teach so they are able to use or apply this information?

Currently, I think teachers spent more time thinking:

  1. If SLT come in, what will they think of this activity?
  2. Will X pupils behave today?
  3. By next Tuesday, I have to have seating plans with SEN, PP, prior attainment, target grade, current grade, EAL, and most-able completed and colour-coded. If I change my seating plan. I’ll have to do all all over again. I won’t change my seating plan. Ever.
  4. Also by next Tuesday, I must have a 4-sided context sheet completed, with a narrative for the class and a narrative for every pupil, which must broken down by SEN group and racial background. Why do I have to do this anew each half-term? If any set changes occur in the meantime, then I’ll have to do this again. Again-again.
  5. I must complete triple-lock marking for all my groups but I have a meeting every evening this week. In fact, I have 2 meetings and parents’ evening on Wednesday evening.

You get the idea.

6. Everyone knows the research shows PP pupils lack cultural capital and vocabulary…
So why do we not spend our time improving their cultural capital and vocabulary? Hel-lo? Anyone?

7. Marking and feedback are not synonyms…
They’re not.

8. And neither are marking and assessment…
They’re not either.

9. And while I’m at it…
Neither are assessment and feedback.

Just sayin’.