As I explained in my last post, practising the final skill over and over again does little to develop the final skill. Experts in any field won’t simply have practised the final skill in isolation: they will have spent a large chunk of time being drilled in the skills that underpin and lead up to the final skill. So why are teachers often tempted to ask their pupils to answer practice exam questions every lesson?
Writing a paragraph or essay in every English lesson has a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, it sets kids up to fail. If they haven’t yet had enough practice of the skills underpinning essay writing, they will likely write something poor and imprecise. When kids write things like “He uses a rhetorical question to make the reader think” or “She uses alliteration to make the reader read on” it’s not – contrary to popular belief- because one of their previous teachers told them that would be a good thing to write. No teacher in the history of the universe has ever said that. No, kids write things like that because they have no idea what else to say, and in their admirable attempt to try hard and impress you, they write the first thing that comes into their heads. Why waste their time on this? Instead, they first need more focused practice on the skills and knowledge that underpin essay writing.
Secondly, writing a paragraph or essay every lesson isn’t always helpful for the teacher. Particularly when the whole class seem to have flunked their essays, it’s so hard for a teacher to know exactly what to give feedback on, and exactly what to re-teach or which misconceptions to clear up. Instead, teachers need precise feedback that guides them as to what to do next.
So how might we go about this? How can we get pupils to practise the right things? And how can we ensure that teachers are given the most precise and useful information about their pupils’ progress and areas for development?
Here are a few things we do in the Michaela English department. (Sadly these are all English specific, but perhaps teachers of other subjects could offer alternatives that suit their subjects).
- Sequencing activities:
The new GCSEs demand pupils to know a whole text inside out. They sometimes struggle to make the best connections across whole texts- for example, being able to remember where in Macbeth we see ‘blood’ as a symbol for guilt. Rather than waiting until pupils have read the whole play, it is often useful to ask pupils to put events into order even when they are only a few scenes in. For example:
Put the events in order:
- In an aside, Macbeth reveals his intentions to deceive: ‘stars hide your fires’.
- The witches decide to meet with Macbeth
- Duncan declares Macbeth the new Thane of Cawdor
- The Thane of Cawdor is executed
- Banquo and Macbeth hear the witches’ prophecies
- Ross delivers the message to Macbeth
Pupils really have to know the text to be able to carry out this activity. Once they have grasped the sequence of major events in the plot, you can then begin to weave in questions about particular ideas, themes or images in the plot. For example:
- In act 3 scene 1, Macbeth’s evil deepens. List three events prior to this where Macbeth’s evil is shown.
- In act 3 scene 1, Macbeth’s evil deepens. List three events that occur before or after this in which Lady Macbeth’s evil is shown.
This enables them to make connections between scenes, and understand how authors develop characters and themes in the text as a whole.
- Quick Listing
Sometimes, a good old fashioned ‘mind map’ (or a list if that makes more sense for the content your pupils are studying- I don’t think it really matters) can be a really useful form of retrieval practice, particularly for those pupils who have struggle to think of points to make in their writing. This is particularly useful in the run up to exams, when you don’t have time to test the entire domain, but you want to make sure your pupils’ know enough to be able to answer any question that might come up. I like to do this as a quick recap activity, e.g.:
- Write down everything you can remember about Arthur Birling’s relationship with Eva Smith.
- List 3 beliefs Priestley holds about society. Extension: add where these beliefs are best exemplified in the play.
- Write down all the interactions Eva Smith had with the Birlings.
- Write a plan for the following question: ‘Explore how Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as ambitious in act 1 scene 5’,
These activities test memory, of course, but they also give the teacher a sense of how much pupils know about specific topics. They tell you whether your class are ready to move on, can help to shine a light on misconceptions, and might provide a spring board on which to add further details about a particular idea or topic, as a way to deepen understanding.
- Concept Links
In order to develop their understanding of connections between ideas in a text, and to improve their interpretations, pupils need lots of opportunities to think about connections and interpretations. Asking them questions that force them to choose between different interpretations helps to cement their understanding whilst making this visible to the teacher. As with the examples above, these might develop as pupils’ familiarity with the text increases. Early on, I might ask them some questions like this: (click on image to enlarge):
I’d be careful to phrase these points differently each time I tested them, so that I could measure whether or not pupils really understand. So perhaps a couple of lessons later I might present them with this:
In the second set of questions, I’ve tried to increase the complexity ever so slightly by being less specific, and depending less on the most obvious description of the characters. I’d continue to add additional layers of complexity as we continue moving through the unit, perhaps by adding in more components to the question:
Over time, you can build up from pupils knowing who’s who, to what they represent and the significance of their role in the play.
To encourage pupils to think about their interpretations, you might want to give them a question like this:
- Which statement best fit Arthur’s character, and which best fit Sybil’s? Write an ‘A’ next to the statements you believe match Arthur, and an ‘S’ next to the statements that match Sybil.
- Pretends to be charitable
- Created to look stupid to a 1946 audience
- Is terrified of losing social status
- Represents the arrogance of capitalists
Again, this activity would tell you a lot about what your pupils understand about the text and the writer’s intentions. You could also have an interesting conversation about option 3 as arguably this applies to both characters. Either way, this prompts some deep thinking about the text.
This idea comes from this book, which is brilliantly summarised here. The idea is that you give pupils the same sentence stem, changing only the final word (to either ‘because’, ‘but’ or ‘so’). For example:
- Arthur Birling refers to himself as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ because
- Arthur Birling refers to himself as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ but
- Arthur Birling perceives refers as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ so
What I particularly like about these questions is that they really force pupils to think about their answers. They have to draw on their knowledge of the plot, characters and ideas. These sentence stems also provide pupils with the opportunity to practise writing out the kinds of sentences they might have to write in an extended piece of writing later, but without having to worry about everything else. As ever, starting with sentence-level drills aids and supports writing further down the line.
These tasks alone won’t be enough to develop the skill of essay writing, but I think they are useful as they encourage us to start thinking about the most precise forms of practice to give pupils when they are learning how to write about texts. Rather than simply relying on paragraph or essay practice, we need to come up with cleverer ways to ensure pupils practise the right things and that teachers receive the most precise feedback. As ever, knowledge leads to greater and deeper knowledge, and helps to develop skills over time. Without the right kinds of practice, pupils are left without the tools required for developing the final skill. Continued practice of application and manipulation of knowledge is a crucial step in skill development: it simply cannot be overlooked.