This week’s teaching forum looks at ways that teachers can support the planning of extended writing. I spoke with English teacher Emma Rose who has developed a number of brilliantly simple yet devilishly effective planning approaches.
Many students struggle to plan coherent and organised extended essays – even if they have secure knowledge and understanding of the content to be written about it. The problem appears to be one of transfer. In other words, how can students’ knowledge be adapted to meet the genre requirements of the extended essay and the assessment criteria of the task ? This is not only a blind spot for students. Many teachers struggle to articulate the micro-steps their students need to take – from reading a question, to generating ideas, to forming a coherent plan, to writing an answer. This is perhaps a symptom of the dreaded ‘curse of the expert’. As good writers ourselves, we forget what it is like to be a novice.
Emma has realised that the main solution to this problem is to teach each step clearly and to give students multiple opportunities to practise. The new English literature GCSE offers up some potentially tricky question types. For example, students are given an extract from a text – perhaps a couple of paragraphs from A Christmas Carol – and asked to write an answer that refers to the extract and elements from the rest of the text.
Emma has thought very carefully about the thought process students must go through to be ready to attempt the task. First of all, she has developed a scaffold that students use every time they approach an extract. This is the example her students use when approaching a Macbeth extract:
- Label any words which link to a theme e.g ‘Stars’ (Fate), ‘heaven’ (religion)
- Look out for imagery –similes, metaphors, personification
- Look out for symbols – light, dark, religious symbols
- Quickly annotate the lines you do understand in modern English
- First word and last word
- Repetition of words or ideas?
- Punctuation – exclamation marks, rhetorical questions to show emotion
- Make character notes – what do we already know about the characters in this scene?
Emma introduces this at the start of Y10 and uses it consistently for two years. She also adjusts the same scaffold when approaching questions about other texts – i.e. A Christmas Carol – and is thinking about how it could be further adapted for unseen poetry tasks. It provides a framework for generating ideas that, in time, her students begin to internalise for themselves.
Emma has also developed a simple approach to planning. Once they have generated ideas, her students create a two part plan – ‘in the extract’ and ‘across the text’:
Again, Emma has thought strategically about how her students sequence their thinking. They complete the ‘rest of the text’ part first as this is likely to open their schema on the text, giving them more ideas to write about when looking at the extract.
So, what makes Emma’s deceptively simple method so effective?
It is consistent. Students grow in confidence as they become more and more familiar with the scaffold. Emma sticks to her guns and resists the urge to change it each time as she knows that this is likely to lead to unnecessary confusion.
It is repetitive. Regular repetition over time allows for the spaced practice required for durable learning. Students also speed up over time too.
It is simple. Students have an awful lot of content knowledge to learn. Procedural knowledge scaffolds must provide a light touch so that they do not place too much strain on the limited capacity of the working memory.
It builds confidence. Emma never rejects her students’ planning ideas. Instead she shows them how to link and adapt their ideas to suit the question.
It shines a light on implicit processes. Emma has modelled out how her student think and has adapted her teaching to cater for this.
Emma’s ideas show, once again, the value of a less is more approach to teaching. The clarity of the strategies helps to increase Emma’s effectiveness as a teacher, but decrease her workload in the long run.
Written by Andy Tharby.