Tag Archives: Writing

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’.

Anyone can make something simple seem complex… On clarity, explanations, irony, and ‘My Last Duchess’

For those who don’t know, I am currently on a three-week placement with the school who will accredit my QTS via the Assessment-Only route. Amongst other things, this has involved a small amount of teaching and observing A-Level classes — a first for me. Reading through some pupils NEA’s (quaintly known as “coursework” to anyone above a certain age), I was transported back a number of years, to writing my own A-Level essays. Specifically, I remembered feeling pressured to write intelligently. No doubt this pressure was wholly self-inflicted. I had a truly wonderful English teacher for both GCSE and A-Level, Mrs Griggs (also my form teacher), who pretty much singlehandedly kept me in mainstream education, and I have no memory of her saying: “Tom, for the love of God, would you whip out that thesaurus over there and add some needless words to your writing!” But alas, whip out that thesaurus over there I did, and add some (many) needless words l did. William Strunk’s “Omit needless words” is perhaps one of literature’s truest maxims on the art of writing. A virtuoso sentence, unimprovable insofar as it follows the advice it offers (try to re-phrase it more concisely).

Rather less articulately, I found myself offering similar advice to an A-Level pupil. Now, this was a clever lad. Probably an A* candidate. His essay dealt with a number complex ideas on the application of Marxist theory to Larkin’s poetry. However, his writing was riddled with words. Needless words. They were everywhere. A plethora of infinitive verbs. A deluge of abstract nouns. A superfluity of phrases and clauses. And all resulting in a potentially brilliant essay descending into empty vagaries. He took a little convincing, but in time I persuaded him that, while many a writer can take a simple idea and make it seem complex, only a great writer can take a complex idea and make it simple. Back to his computer he went, and hopefully to the most wonderful key of all: delete.

All this had me thinking about the extent to which Strunk’s maxim “Omit needless words” can, or should, be applied to teaching, and in particular teacher explanations. Now, full disclosure, I am not someone who believes a the teacher should shut up and allow a class teach itself. I mean, I’ve read Lord of Flies and I’ve seen Battle Royale, y’know? You won’t ever hear me saying to a colleague who is wittering on endlessly, “Hey maaan, are you the sage on stage or the guide at the side?” I might, however, recommend they improve their explanations.

Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked as a Business Development Manager. If there’s one thing you learn quickly when you’re selling things to disinterested people, it is this: what you say is irrelevant, rather it is what they hear that is important. A good general rule is this: people like to get the information they need clearly and quickly. They don’t want to know what they don’t (think they) need to know. Please note, I’m not advocating teaching to the exam here. I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t overload pupils with flim-flam and waffle. I might love irony, for example, but still, prior to teaching ‘My Last Duchess’, there is no need for me to indulge that love by giving my bottom set Year 10 a thirty-minute introduction to the concept. This would leave many confused and most bored. Better off I give them a simple and straightforward explanation, one which will allow them to access and understand how irony works in this poem. So I’ll weave my explanation of irony into my teaching of the poem more generally.

So how do I explain it? Well, first of all, here’s some things I don’t do. I don’t explain it in terms of sarcasm, as I have seen done before (“it’s a bit like sarcasm but it doesn’t rely on tone of voice”). Why don’t I do that? Two reasons. One: confusion between irony and sarcasm is something I am trying to avoid, so comparing them is obviously counter-productive. Two: this definition doesn’t actually explain what irony is, only what it isn’t. Similarly, I won’t offer a vague definition, such as: “It’s when someone says one thing but means another”. Here pupils will reasonably respond: “Oh I get it. You mean lying, Sir?” No. No I don’t. The explanation I’ve used has confused them. And I most certainly will not give them a definition of irony up front, lest those pesky children spent their time attempting to sniff out the irony themselves and thus develop an array of misconceptions, which I must then unpick.

Instead, what I will attempt to do is provide a simple explanation, ideally within a clarifying example. Again, note that my explanation/definition comes within the clarifying example, not before it. So for ‘My Last Duchess’ I will explain the following, writing key information on the board as I go (see the end of post for an example) to prevent overloading the pupils.

  1. I tell the pupils that it is necessary to understand irony in order to understand the poem fully. I tell them I’ll demonstrate an example first then explain what irony is.
  2. I make them aware it is Browning who is being ironic, not the Duke. (The pupils need to understand this first, otherwise they are likely to confuse irony with a lack of truthfulness on the part of the Duke.)
  3. I explain that Browning is using the Duke’s words to mean one thing (the Duke does believe what he is saying) but he is also expecting the reader (“that’s you lads”) to pick up on another meaning.
  4. Note that while, as a teacher, you can see how I am beginning to introduce the concept of irony, the pupils are still in the dark. Because of this, I’ll recap points 2 and 3 a number of times, until I am happy that everyone has listened/grasped them.
  5. Now, as I explain the differences between what the Duke says and what the reader understands, I will draw a diagram on the board that illustrates some of the differences:FullSizeRender
  6. I will then explain to the pupils that it is in this gap, between what the Duke says and what the reader understands, that the irony lives. The Duke is saying one thing, but Browning is telling us something else. (“And remember lads, it is Browning who is being ironic, and it is Browning who wrote the words of the Duke.”) Generally, at this point, a noise of satisfaction will come over the room as the penny begins to drop. With this, I will add to the diagram like so:IMG_1256
  7. Finally, once pupils have some understanding of what irony is, I will provide a definition, which I will expect them to write in their books. Something along the lines of: irony is when a writer uses words that mean one thing, but the reader understands he actually means something different or opposite. (Clearly, this is an oversimplification of the complexities of irony. But at this point the pupils have an understanding of how irony works, and a simple definition to go with it. Anything more will confuse them. Once the knowledge is embedded it can be expanded on later, should the teacher believe it beneficial or desirable.)
  8. At this point I might add something like: “In the case of ‘My Last Duchess’, Browning was using the Duke as an example of how some people in Victorian Britain thought about women. Some would have thought the Duke’s behaviour was fine. Can you believe that? However, he used the irony to show that the Duke was actually a madman, even though he seemed kind of normal. He wanted to show people they should not think the same way as the Duke; he wanted them to think the opposite way to the Duke, so he used the Duke’s own words against himself. Browning is saying that if you think the same way as the Duke you are also a madman.” The pupils get this. They think: “Yes, he is a madman. He had her killed for smiling.”

Before I move on with the lesson, I will have the pupils parrot back the definition of irony I provided for them. I will also have them talk me through how irony works in ‘My Last Duchess’. Here pupils will struggle. But it is particularly important to be rigorous with this step. The pupils will get frustrated, but it is good frustration; they are frustrated because they understand and yet are struggling to explain. It’s worthwhile talking them through this. I re-assure them that they have already accomplished the hard part (understanding irony) and now they just need to do the easy bit — committing it to memory.

This is at odds with how the relationship between working memory, long-term memory, and “true understanding” is typically conceived. Usually, memorisation is thought to a) come first, b) be in some sense “easier”, and c) be less worthwhile (“surface learning”). As we can see from this example, none of those things is necessarily true. When I explain irony to my pupils, they frequently understand the concept. When I ask my pupils to explain irony to me, they frequently seem not to understand the concept. But it is vital that as teachers we do not mistake a pupil’s inability to explain a concept as evidence that they have not understood it. It simply means that they have not memorised the various constituent pieces of information that are required for independent explanation. In this example, it is memorisation that is both trickier and more effortful than understanding, and it is memorisation that will enable pupils to become independent users of the concept of irony.

When I explain the concept to them, I am standing in for their long-term memory, and I am simply asking them to manipulate small pieces of information that I present and explain in a logical sequence. It is for this reason that I will often list the key points of an explanation on the whiteboard in a series of steps, an example of which is provided at the end of the post (1,2,3 etc.). It allows the information to be sequenced into small chunks, making the information easier to understand before it has been memorised and easier to memorise after it has been understood.

All this takes 15-20 minutes, depending on the group, and at no point do I get bogged down trying to explain what irony is. Like Strunk’s masterful “Omit needless words”, the irony mostly demonstrates itself. I simply stand on stage and guide the pupils’ eyes toward it…

Please, if you have something to add regarding my definition of irony, my approach to explaining, the steps, the inversion of the understanding/memorisation process, or indeed anything else, then leave a comment below. I’m keen to learn as much as I can from my fellow EduTwits, and I’ll reply when I can.

 

Whiteboard steps

  1. It is Browning is being ironic, not the Duke.
  2. The Duke genuinely believes what he is saying, but the reader understands something different.
  3. Diagram. (Illustrates examples of difference between what the Duke says and the audience thinks, and includes an explanation of how irony works in My Last Duchess.)
  4. Definition: irony is when a writer uses words that mean one thing, but the reader understands he actually means something different or opposite.

 

Should you wish to read Strunk and White’s excellent, if slightly outdated, The Elements of Style, you can do so here.

My explanation of irony, particularly in relation to My Last Duchess, has been partly influenced by The Art of Poetry vol. 6. I recommend every English teacher buys it. It is the best poetry resource around, and by some distance.

On EAL, vocab, memory, and trust

For teachers, one of the more dispiriting hallmarks of life at the chalkface is pupils’ inability to retain information. The joy of yesterday, when pupils successfully articulated how Shelley used structure in Ozymandias to reflect the shifting and precarious nature of power, is obliterated when a day later those same pupils have forgotten what a stanza is.

However, one area where this observation doesn’t hold is in retention of vocabulary, particularly by EAL learners. During a meeting with my (wonderful) mentor last week, she praised a dictionary task I had done with a low-ability set while we studied ‘Storm on the Island’. After reflecting for a moment I said: “It’s incredible, EAL kids remember all the vocab I teach them. They don’t remember anything else I teach,” I added, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “but they can recall words defined for them six-months ago. It’s actually insane.” She nodded sagely, my mentor, and we went on with the meeting.

This got me to thinking about the nature of language acquisition and what vocabulary  we should be teaching our EAL pupils. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that, when it comes subject-specific language, we should teach them the exact same vocabulary that we teach our non-EAL pupils. There should be no reduction in vocabularic ambition. (Yes, I just made that word up.)

Anyway, prior to life in my current school, I have seen classrooms where the teachers teach classes of solely EAL pupils using card-sorts and only the most basic language. Note, these were pupils who had a basic grasp of the language, not brand new arrivals with little or no English. I understand the rationale for this approach, and I have no doubt that the teachers were teaching this way out of a sincere belief that they are doing best by their pupils. And, frankly, they might be right. I have no evidence to suggest my approach is any more effective. However, my experience so far has taught me that EAL pupils will pick up the basic vocabulary, so long as they are exposed to it, which the vast majority are, if only through the volume of English they hear in their classrooms. Humans are evolved to acquire language and, while there is a difference between first and second language acquisition, as teachers we should exploit this, and in English the new specifications reward teaching EAL pupils higher-level vocab.

Whilst I have some reservations about the new specifications, in general I think the changes have been positive. In literature particularly, pupils are rewarded for their knowledge of the texts. This is why I don’t dumb-down the vocabulary I teach my EAL pupils. For example, when I come to teach Armitage’s ‘Remains’ I will define the word “dehumanise”, explain how it relates to the poem, illustrate quotes it links to, and model ways in which I might use the word to write about the poem. Of course, when the pupils produce their own paragraphs, they will contain all the mistakes familiar to those who teach a high volume of EAL pupils: confusion between singular nouns and plural verbs, and vice-versa; over use of conjunctions; incorrect use of definite and indefinite article; wordiness; merging of first and second language grammatical constructions etc etc. However, the pupils will make these mistakes while using vocabulary that allows them to access, and deal with, ideas of conceptual complexity; under the current specification, the mark scheme allows me to reward them for this.

This brings to mind another problem of teaching classes that have high numbers of EAL pupils: identifying those who are high-ability and low-ability, since EAL pupils’ linguistic competence often obscures their ability to think conceptually. So often they have the ability but they don’t have the words. However, the approach outlined above (define, explain, illustrate, model) allows all the pupils to have access to the material because they are both learning new vocabulary and understanding how it relates to the text at hand. Another pleasing consequence of this approach is that it also benefits the boys in the class whose first language is English but who lack natural aptitude for the subject. Further, it is excellent for the boys who have fallen behind their peers and ended up in a low set due to years of poor behaviour. For these boys in particular, it provides tangible nuggets of knowledge they can learn and consolidate, allowing them to feel a sense of success. An underdeveloped vocabulary is common to all these groups, and a methodical approach to broadening their ‘word-base’ benefits these pupils greatly. (NB. I teach in an all-boys school.)

The question all this naturally begs is why do pupils seem to remember vocabulary better than other information? Again, I have nothing to back up any of the assertions I am about to make — besides my own experience, observations, and, truthfully, guess-work. But two ideas immediately present themselves to me. Firstly, humans probably have a natural inclination to remember and recall language. Secondly, and more importantly for those of us who teach, we probably teach vocabulary better than other knowledge. As I pointed out above, I often use a rigorous approach when introducing pupils to new vocabulary. The ‘define, explain, illustrate, model’ process means that, after pupils are introduced to a word (and concept), they then see me work with that word, while also having the chance to interact with it themselves through my questioning and/or any tasks I ask them to complete. This contrasts with the way pupils are usually introduced to new information. Perhaps it is just me, but I know that, outside of vocabulary, it is rare that I have the opportunity to work with such small chunks of information and teach them so rigorously and explicitly. Furthermore, once I have taught a word it slips into the minutiae of the classroom culture. Once I am confident the pupils are secure with a word and concept, I am free to use it in my daily teachings. This produces a sort of de-facto retrieval practise, whereby pupils are forced to recall the word and what it means each time I use it, and if they are to fully understand what I am saying they are also required to think flexibility about the word, applying its meaning to various contexts. It is most satisfying when, a number of months later, we will be looking at a completely different text (say, Inspector Calls) and a hand will shoot up in desperate excitement, as though it must urgently touch the ceiling. A pupil will say: “Sir! Sir! He’s dehumanising her Sir!” in reference to Birling and Eva Smith. The sense of satisfaction pupils have when they can relate old concepts to new contexts is one of the most satisfying elements of the job, and one of the most visible reminders of how we make a difference.

Reflecting upon this has had implications for the ways in which I teach other knowledge to the pupils. Where possible, I try to reference old concepts in new contexts and I frequently use ‘Do it now…’ tasks to recap prior knowledge, as I know many other teachers do. But crucially, when necessary I will also stop lessons completely and return to a previous topic we have learned. This is particularly effective with a class who are becoming restless. I’m sure every teacher recognises the shiver that begins to twitch and quiver through a class when pupils collectively struggle with a difficult concept. Often, I’ll stop the lesson and ask some quick-fire retrieval questions about previous (often entirely unrelated) knowledge the pupils have been taught. There’s two reasons I do this. Most obviously, it allows me to recap and consolidate prior learning. Less obviously, it allows me to shift the dynamic of the room from one of struggle to success. I am not averse to struggle and many have pointed out that it is often necessary for learning. But we must also be aware that struggle is not pleasant and a class cannot spend all their time in a state of strain and confusion. By returning to something already learned, I am relieving some of the stress to which my pupils are exposed. But more than this, once I have shifted the dynamic, I can narrate my pupils through the process of learning, through the struggle. I remind them that there was a time when they had to struggle through the concepts in the questions that they have just found easy, and I reassure that there will be a time in the future when they breeze through questions on the ideas they are struggling with now. “But you must trust me,” I tell them. “You must let me guide you, and you must stick with me; we’ll get there, but we’ll only get there if we stay together.”