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“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
“The more you know, the more you can improvise. You do have to know what you are doing, but once you have the skills, you can make it up as you go along.”
While I’m by no means a stylish writer, the ability to express myself clearly on paper is something that I don’t have to think that hard about Where I sympathise with my students – for many of whom writing is an effortful struggle – is as a musician. As a bass player, the effortless flow of pen to paper creating a multitude of meaningful shapes and structures is something I can only dream about. True musical improvisation is something that I aspire to but rarely achieve. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve played bass for fifteen years, know my scales and practice whenever I get the time, yet seemingly effortless improvisational flow, perfectly suiting the chords, melody and rhythm of the song, eludes me.
I imagine that this is how novice writers must feel, this struggle to translate thoughts into words and sentences; the idea that none of the sentences that they know how to write really fit the bill. The musical improvisation metaphor is an apt one for developing expertise in writing: freedom brought about by true expertise is one that requires mastery of a huge amount of knowledge, mastery so ingrained that it bypasses the conscious mind. If I really wanted to develop my skills at improvisation, I would need to devote time to explicit mastery of scales and musical patterns. My students need to devote time and effort to mastery of the myriad sentence structures help to express meaning.
Recently, I’ve been thinking along these lines in trying to teach my students to be better analytical writers. In the past, I’ve worked on improving the analytical writing structure I teach my students (from low expectations P.E.E to the more challenging I.E.E.A.E model, as written about here), and I’ve also written about teaching sentence structures in order to develop students’ abilities as expressive writers.
What I’ve not, until the beginning of this year, realised is the idea that in order to free students up as analytical thinkers and writers, I need to devote time to explicitly teaching a variety of analytical sentence structures, allowing them to better express the relationships between ideas. In embarking on this project, a striking realization I’ve had is that teaching sentence structures is actually far more than this: it is teaching students how to think about texts with increased complexity, helping them to draw together their knowledge in new ways.
Here’s an example. I imagine every English teacher has at one time or another struggled with the temptation of marking work with a ‘look deeper’ comment, a comment that, of course, students have no idea of how to respond to. Instead, what if we taught students that the following sentence structures were specific ways to look deeper?
In fact, by using these structures I think that students do more than simply ‘look deeper’. To use them, they have to recognise that the evidence they are examining has an alternative meaning that contradicts first impressions.
Likewise, teaching the following structure helps to develop the thought that characters can have varied motivations for their actions, and that it helps to think carefully about these when we write.
My thinking here is that, through the learning of analytical sentence structures, students are actually learning to connect what they know about texts in new and more complex ways. The structures give shape and form to what might otherwise be disconnected thoughts. On top of this, the structures help students to develop an academic tone to their writing, something which is vital for high attainment at KS4 and beyond.
It is important to note, however, that I don’t think that learning these sentences alone is sufficient for improving student work: if students don’t know what a character’s differing motivations for action are, then there is no sentence structure in the world that can help them to analyse this. The substantive knowledge must come first; the sentences just help them to use this.
Finally, I should add that the great majority the structures to follow are taken from brilliant work done by Phil Stock at Must Do Better… His post, ‘Mr Benn and the Anatomy of Extended Writing’ is a vital read for all teachers who want to improve the writing of their students. He also came up with the format for laying out the sentences, giving students different options for the academic vocabulary they use.
Analytical Sentence Structures
I grouped and adapted these sentence structures to fit with my current procedure for analytical writing, IEEAE, discussed at length here.
For identify (Give your opinion about a text or provide an answer to a question, using examples to support your view) the following structures were grouped together:
For explain (Explain how and why the quotation you selected supports your opinion, often using the word because):
For explore (Look deeper into your view and/or offer an alternative explanation of what your quotation might mean):
For analyse (Zoom in on individual words and phrases to discuss their effects):
And finally, for evaluate (Zoom-out to relate your work to ideas outside the text: look at what the critics say):
For KS4 and 5 students, I grouped a series of structures – also fitting into the evaluate bracket – designed to help them refer to critical opinion:
Finally, I put together structures designed to aid students in writing a thesis statement, or introduction. The whole lot then went into a booklet, which I had laminated and bound for ease of use.
The entire booklet is available to download below, and you can also download a simplified version that I put together for KS3 students.
How to teach the structures?
I taught these structures to students across a range of year groups. Year 7 worked on a simplified version of the booklet, while every class from year 8 – 12 used the more complex version. This is what I found out in the process:
- It is far more effective teaching the structures in chunks than simply handing out the booklet and expecting students to grasp the structures for themselves. This did not seem to be age dependent.
- For my students in years 7 and 8, I taught the structures across an entire unit, teaching them how to identify in week 1, explain in week 2 etc., I also found that student needed to see the different structures explicitly modelled before they grasped how to use them. Once they had seen this, they found them easy to use.
- Repeated practice was vital: my key stage three students practiced each stage in isolation multiple times, and we practiced stitching them together.
- Giving the booklet to older students and expecting them to understand and be able to use it without the same level of teacher support and modelling was not effective, even at KS5. I found that I had to backtrack and reteach it in segments.
- So, to summarise: teach it in parts; explicitly model the use of the different structures; introduce lots of opportunities to practice before moving on.
I tried this with student across a wide ability range. This is an example of the structures in use at the end of the first half term of the year with a year 8 student who came into secondary from a very low starting point in their reading and writing. This example was completed after lots of practice but without the aid of the booklet; the student utilised the structures from memory.
This student completed this paragraph without the aid of the booklet of sentence structures to help them. Even so, the use of the tentative ‘perhaps’ in the exploration section and ‘The audience is trapped between…’ in their evaluation I think demonstrates the impact that the structures have had on their writing, both in terms of the creation of an academic tone and in helping to develop new connections between facts. That said, there is clearly work to be done: some of the paragraph is a little repetitive, the identify section could be clearer, and some of the structures are not used perfectly.
Equally, I could do more to teach students the vocabulary they need to analyse really well: the words mono- and polysyllabic would have been so much better than ‘short’ and ‘long words’. This just reinforces to me the importance of teaching the ‘what’ as well as the ‘how’. Actual content – facts – that students can use in their analytical thought is vitally important. Without these, students can know all the flashy sentence structures in the world, and they still won’t be able to say anything of value.
Across all the groups I used this with, particularly with KS3 where we really focused on lots of practice and modelling, outcomes were good. All students completed an essay on an unseen book extract or piece of ancient rhetoric, without the use of the structures to help them with the essay. What I saw, across the board, were high quality pieces of analytical writing that would not look out of place in a GCSE class.
Areas for development
- Transfer to memory – across all students, there were issues with committing the structures to memory. When the booklet was removed, students did not write as well as with it, and some students forgot lots of the structures and their writing was limited to just a few examples, albeit a few more than they would have used if they’d never used the booklet at all.
- Fundamentally, even when students did manage to memorise the structures well, they were still reliant on other people’s structures: there was not much evidence of students using them creatively (blending or experimenting with structures, for example). To return to the music analogy from earlier, they were still very much focused on scale practice, rather than improvisation.
- I need to do more work on memorisation of these features, for example by starting lessons with recall tests. Examples of appropriate questions could be: What sentence structure can you used to make a tentative point? , and ‘What sentence structure can you used to show divisions in a character’s motivation?’ When I teach this again next year, I will certainly focus more on memorisation of structures.
- In order to really gain a level of virtuosity with these sentences, I think regular practice is needed all the way from key stage three onward. Students need to know these structures really well, before they can begin to bend and break the rules. I don’t think that the 6 week trial I held was enough. To that end, I have arranged all the structures into a scheme of work, designed to run from years 7-9, available to download here. In this, students will perfect their use of a small selection of structures each year, working towards mastery of the whole set by the time they reach KS4. Hopefully, this will free them up to be more creative.
Again, the files to download:
- IEEAE analytical structures: full, advanced version
- IEEAE analytical structures: simplified beginner version
- Analytical writing long term plan
Writing and Desirable Difficulties: how making writing harder to learn makes students better at it (eventually)
I often wish that I could remember more about what went on in lessons when I was at school. There are snippets that I can recall quite well: I can remember learning to balance quadratic equations, memorizing the periodic table and about the history of WW1. One thing, though, that I cannot remember – no matter how hard I try – is how I learnt to write.
In fact, I’m almost definite that in my school, we were not explicitly taught grammar and sentence structures. One reason that I know this is that as a trainee teacher, I had to learn this myself. The question, then, is how is it that I know how to write? I have a hunch that I learnt how to write through reading, but how do I help people learn to write who – on the whole – read less than I did?
For me, the explicit teaching of the structural content (sentences, features etc.,) of writing has been a vital part of helping my students to write well. In this post, I will discuss the evolution of my practice in this area, critiquing each method I have used, before arriving at one that I consider effective.
1) The sentence variation starter #1: When I first started thinking about improving my students’ sentence writing abilities, the first thing I used, along with many of my colleagues and, I imagine, teachers the world over, was this:
I taught students how to write using simple (S), compound (C) and three kinds of complex sentence (moving the subordinate clause to the beginning (BCX) middle (MCX) and end (ECX) of the sentence). To download my lesson on how to teach students to do this, click here: Lesson S C ECX BCX MCX.
At the start of every lesson, I gave students a simple sentence that related in some way to our content for the day. They had to transform it into the four other types. My hope was that by the constant, repetitive practice, students would begin naturally to use these kinds of sentence in their writing.
When students engaged in extended writing, they would, generally resort to the same patterns (or lack of) as before we began intensive practice of the five sentence types, I think for the following reasons:
- The fantastic book ‘Make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning’ finds that deep learning comes when practice is done in the same context as performance. For example, if a musician sits at home and practices the scales all alone, even to a high level of expertise, they will be lost in a real life performance situation when mastery requires so much more. Or, to put it another way: ‘If you always practice the same skill in the same way, from the same place…you’re starving your learning on short rations of variety.’ By making the context and conditions of practice exactly the same, every lesson, students were not actually able to use their learning in any other context than as part of a lesson starter.
- This book also states that ‘Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention.’ Now, while having the same starter lesson after lesson certainly asks students to repeatedly retrieve the information, is it actually effortful? Is performing the same thing, multiple times per week a challenge? I would argue that the grammar starter, if repeated in exactly the same way is not challenging enough to encourage real, long-lasting learning. David Didau’s ‘Learning Spy’ blog argues that this sort of practice is in fact an example of performance rather than learning: this sort of ‘massed practice’ means that students become adept at performing under certain conditions, rather than making real progress.
So, what did I learn?
- Repetitive grammar starters, isolated from real writing, are pointless. Students need to practice their grammar in the same arena as I would expect them to perform: in real pieces of writing.
- Recall of the material needs to be made more challenging: asking students to repeat the same knowledge, in the same way, in the same part of the lesson means that they become trained to perform in a certain way. They actually learn very little.
- In fact, would I even be satisfied if students were only able to use five kinds of sentence structure? I felt that I needed to demonstrate higher expectations of my students by asking them to master many more structures and features.
2) The Sentence Variation Starter #2: The next thing that I tried was to compile a larger variety of sentence types – a list that I called ‘The Big 15’–and have the students utilise them in a real writing context. The list contained the five sentence types above, as well as others that I took from Alan Peat’s ‘Exciting Sentence Types’ resource. This contained sentences such as:
- Some; Others – The first part of this sentence begins with the word some. The second part of the sentence is separated with a semi colon and the word others. Some children walk to school; others travel by car.
- Starting a sentence with a simile – using a simile, followed by a comma, as the first clause of yours sentence. Yawning like a lion, he sat up.
My ‘Big 15 sentences’ sheet can be downloaded here: The Big 15
Alongside this list, which students stuck into the front inside cover of their books, I created a lesson starter called ‘At the Bus Stop’ (actually, I stole this from a primary school that I visited). As the class was working on descriptive writing at the time, at the start of every lesson I asked students to imagine meeting a different person at the school bus stop. They had to describe this encounter using a specific set of the big 15 sentences, selected through random numbers (1, 14, 5, 6, 3, 11 etc.,). This ‘Slow Writing’ approach was heavily influenced by David Didau’s blogging, found here and here.
I then asked students to read and assess each other’s descriptions, before giving them time to revise and edit their work. This is an example of a student’s piece of writing for the above task, with revisions made on the board:
This was a far more successful experiment. There were clear improvements in student writing across the board, and students actually enjoyed their starter far more than the previous one; it also linked in much better with our lessons. There were, however, still some issues with this approach:
When I assessed students on their descriptive writing, while there was a marked improvement in sentence variation, some students used a disappointingly small number of the sentence types, and all had issues ‘blending’ these with descriptive features. While I had made improvements in asking students to practice in a more realistic context, I had not concentrated on actually asking them to learn and retrieve the key knowledge.
Another quotation from ‘Make it Stick’: ‘Effortful retrieval both strengthens the memory but also makes the learning pliable again, leading to its reconsolidation.’ My students had become reliant on the Big 15 sheet as a crutch in their writing, and I, as their teacher, had not known enough to concentrate just as much on the students’ memorisation of the sentence types as I had on their ability to use them. Retrieval of the knowledge was effortless; hence, learning was limited.
What did I learn?
- Again, I needed to make recall of the material more challenging. I could have included periodic tests on the sentence types and I could have removed the Big 15 help sheet after a certain period of time.
- Another insight from ‘Make it Stick’: Rather than mixing up the writing styles that students were practicing (interleaving descriptive writing and its constituent sentence types and features with other writing styles, for example), I concentrated only on one writing style, leading – or so says the evidence presented in the book – to suboptimal learning: ‘…the research shows unequivocally that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave practice than if you mass it.’
3) My current project:
Inspired by the ‘Learning from My Mistakes’ post, ‘Death to the Sentence Stems: Long Live the Sentence Structures’, from which I took nearly all the sentence structures to follow, I decided to make my expectations of student writing much more challenging. I created sets of cards – one set for descriptive writing, and one set for argumentative writing – containing all the success criteria ( not only sentence structures but language features, structural elements like connectives and key expectations, like using clear topic sentences) for each style. I also attached points to these, so for example in descriptive writing:
- A Personification, 5 commas and 3 tos sentence: ‘Harsh white walls frown at the monotone uniformed prisoners, men with bleached faces and no eyes threaten, guns hoover, thunderously muted, waiting for someone to move, to think, to breath.’ is worth 4 points.
- A Comma sandwich (MCX): ‘The sun, which had been absent for days, shone steadily in the sky’ is worth only 1. These are awarded based on the difficulty (or flashiness) of the sentence.
- Using onomatopoeia, or any other descriptive feature, is worth 1 point.
- Failing to meet certain fundamental expectations for the style, like using a mixture of short and long sentences, or clustering descriptive features to create vivid imagery, deducts 5 points.
While in argumentative writing:
- A Not, nor, nor sentence: Nobody, not the postman, nor the housekeeper, nor Jim himself knew how the letter had got onto the doormat. is worth 3 points
- Use of imperatives or any other argumentative feature is worth 1 point.
- Failing to use connectives to link ideas and paragraphs appropriately results in a loss of 5 points, amongst a variety of other key stylistic expectations.
In both sets, there were roughly 35 cards overall, with around 20-25 sentence structures, the rest being made up of features or key stylistic expectations. A full set can be seen below; the black cards are the key expectations, which remain laid out at all times. The others are either structures or features, which are shuffled and placed in separate piles.
How did I use the cards (the steps):
- Familiarsation: I began to use the cards in paired writing activities. A fantastic discussion of the benefits as well as a successful structure for paired writing can be found on the Reflecting English blog. Students worked in pairs, each directing the writing of the other by selecting two cards: one sentence structure, and one feature. The students would work to combine these in their writing, asking their partner to check their attempt for correctness before requesting another pair of cards. The image below shows a game being played; the two bottom cards are in active use; when finished with they are placed to the back of the piles.
- Memorisation: After familiarising themselves with each card through the paired writing process (this took a couple of lessons), the students then went about memorising the cards. This was done through using them as flashcards, with students looking at the title of the card and having to recall and write an example. Cards that they could complete went on one pile, and those they couldn’t on another, continuing until all cards had been successfully recalled. From ‘Make it Stick’: ‘Something as simple as a deck of flashcards can provide an example of spacing. Between repetitions of any individual card, you work through many others.’ I think, therefore, that this method, giving the sheer number of structures and features to commit to memory, fulfills the criteria for a ‘desirable difficulty’, especially when you interleave two different writing styles, which I did. My students found this hard!
- Testing: At this point (after leaving a gap of a couple of days), I removed the cards completely and introduced low-stakes testing to aid recall of the structures and features. Previously, I would have continued with students continually using the cards in their writing until I felt they were comfortable with them. Evidence says this is incorrect; again from ‘Make it Stick: ‘Today, we know from empirical research that practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than reexposure to the original material.’ I used a Quizlet page for the testing (writing to describe here; writing to argue here. This is the easiest tool I know of for quickly making randomised tests). Students then used the cards to relearn material they had forgotten. I repeated this step a couple of times, interleaving the describe and argue tests to build the level of difficulty.
- Writing without prompts: I then gave students a writing task to complete without the aid of the cards. This served as another test with an even higher level of difficulty as they didn’t even have the names of the sentences and features to act as prompts, something that students found fairly taxing. Knowing that they were trying to achieve a certain score in their writing helped to provide impetus to recall the material, even when effortful.
- Modelling, peer assessment and improvement: Following this, I showed the class a model that I had written using the cards, asking the class to score this:
The idea of scoring the model was to show the students the quantity of sentence structures and features that a high quality paragraph might contain. There is obviously no hard and fast rule here: the idea of scoring writing can seem a little formulaic but I wanted the students to see that good writing is, in the main, packed with interesting sentence structures and features (students scored my paragraph at around 19 points).
Next, I asked students to read their partner’s work, picking their best and worst paragraphs and scoring them in the same way. Here is an example of a student’s ‘worst’ paragraph (it achieved 4 points):
Finally, student re-wrote their paragraphs, attempting to bring them closer to the score achieved on my model. Again, this was done with no prompting from the cards, and achieved a 16 point increase, demonstrating, I think, the power of adding some sort of a ‘stake’ to a test: the simple desire to want to beat their own score increased effort and improved recall. This is also just the sort of effortful recall that leads to long term memorisation.
Now, it goes without saying that I repeated these steps quite a few times, especially the testing, modelling and peer assessment stages. I was also very careful to interleave each writing style –both with each other and with other completely different topics. I hope this meant that I was leaving enough of a gap for optimal ‘forgetting’ to occur before returning to the material. This method has, without a doubt, done more to help my students produce excellent writing than any I’ve ever used before.
Benefits of this method:
- At every stage, students found it really, really hard, but this is a good thing. As Didau writes: ‘Deliberately choose the harder, more difficult option. Learning isn’t easy. But as Hattie reminds us, “A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult.”
- Rather than just sentence structures, language features or any other criteria, it encompasses all of these together. This means that students have to be able to recall and master multiple things at once, as well as worrying about content, something that expert writers can do but that is a hugely challenging thing to grasp.
- Unlike with grammar starters, students practice their writing in a ‘performance context’: they create real pieces of writing, without aids or prompts, just as they would in an exam situation.
- It is easy to test students on their abilities, and easy to judge real progress being made over time.
- It creates pieces of writing that score highly in exams. Examiners like interesting structures and features, combined in unique ways.
- It privileges knowledge over skills: students need to learn the content before they can use this in writing. Put simply, there is no such thing as the skill of writing; it is just a case of mastering a vast network of different areas of knowledge. This method recognises that fact.
Further reading: in no particular order, here are some of the things that I read which helped me in my thinking about writing.
- Make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel.
- Reflecting English: The Beauty of Paired Writing
- Learning from My Mistakes: Piddle, PEE and WEE
- Learning from my Mistakes: Death to Sentence Stems – Long Live Sentence Structures
- The Goldfish Bowl: The Art of the Sentence
- Teaching, Leading Learning: It’s not skills – It’s know how.
- The Learning Spy: Deliberately Difficult – Why it’s better to make learning harder
- The Learning Spy: The Problem With Progress – Designing a curriculum for learning
- The Learning Spy: How Slowing Down Can Improve Your Writing
- The Learning Spy: Revisiting Slow Writing
Rigorous Analytical Writing: Is P.E.E fit for purpose?
In my relatively short teaching career (two schools; two countries; five years), I have been exposed to a vertiginously long list of different strategies, acronyms and procedures for helping students to write analytically: do you PEE? How about PEARL? Or PETER? PETEETER? What about EPLWE?
My personal journey through this quagmire is of interest, at least to me, because it highlights some important issue related to my progress as a teacher of English and to the teaching of the subject in general. In this post, I want to survey the different methods for structuring analytical writing that I have used, listing the reasons why, thus far, I have been dissatisfied with all of them. Through this, I hope to uncover some fundamental reasons why all of the above – and more – are unfit for purpose, and why a different approach to the teaching of analytical writing is required.
Much of this post, in particular the ‘different approach’ to analytical writing just mentioned, has been influenced – or borrowed wholesale – from David Didau’s ‘The Learning Spy’ blog, as well as his book ‘The Secret of Literacy’. Specific posts will be highlighted below, but just to give credit where due.
A (brief) survey of analytical writing method to date
Point, Evidence, Explain (P.E.E)
I started, as I imagine many new English teachers did – before they knew any better – with good old reliable P.E.E. For those who aren’t haven’t heard of this, students make a point, answering a question about a text; give evidence, by quoting a line from the text; and then ‘explain’ the link between the evidence and the point.
- P.E.E is easy to remember. With the faint scent of urea adding a minor frisson, students are able to remember the acronym easily which, I suppose, means that they are able to learn how to use the structure more quickly.
- If followed to the letter, PEE is really easy to do, which might make it an appropriate tool for those beginning to learn about how to write analytically.
- It cross cuts schools, and subjects, more of which will be discussed below.
- It is far too easy, lacking in the necessary rigour and detail to make students into expert analytical writers. When you think about it, asking a student merely to explain the link between the evidence and the point is hardly all there is to writing analytically. Where is the fine-grained detail? Where can the student explore the nuances of language? The grade ladder below demonstrates that if students merely ‘explain’ the links between their evidence and their point this is – I think at most –a C grade response.
This leads to the next problem.
- For any teacher who uses PEE for anyone other than students who have never written analytically before, you quickly realize that asking students to ‘explain’ is not enough. (For a different argument for the same view, see Reflecting English’s excellent post on the subject.) For that reason, the term ‘explain’ is then expanded to include language analysis, evaluation of writer’s intention and effect on reader, and a whole raft of other tools.
- This means that P.E.E quickly loses any ‘sticky’ benefits mentioned above: students don’t only need to remember P.E.E, but in actual fact a whole list of other procedures when analysing language
- For those of us who struggle to get students to really understand what command terms mean (explain, explore, analyse etc.,), this is perpetrating a fairly large scale confusion of the term ‘explain’. Using P.E.E is a catch-22: if we take the basic meaning of the term ‘explain’, then P.E.E is not fit for purpose as it only really allows a very basic level of analysis. If we expand it, then we are misusing it with potentially damaging consequences if students are asked to ‘explain’ something in another context or possibly an exam.
In a brief and possibly slightly confused attempt to supplant P.E.E, in my NQT year I devised the P.E.A Lasagna method of analytical writing. To be fair to it, the year 10 English Language group that I used it with did well in their exams, however I did not pursue this approach into my third year as a teacher. Please see the below images for an explanation of the approach. I developed this to help students improve in a few key areas:
- The point / white sauce idea came from the fact that students were not linking back to their point in the rest of their paragraph. They would write the point, and then go off on the tangent. The idea here was that this should remind them that they should always be making links back to the central point
- The ‘double-blocking’ of the pasta sheets/evidence was because I wanted students to be inserting multiple short sections of the text in their paragraphs, rather than simply having one large chunk at the start
- Finally, I wanted students to attempt to attempt to pick quotations apart in their analysis, hence the language features / words split.
- Compared to P.E.E, this is a lot more rigorous in its requirements of the students. Unadulterated, it allows for higher achievement than if students simply followed the basic P.E.E structure to the letter.
- Although at the time I thought this was easy to remember, I have since changed my mind. While my students did get the hang of it, I’m not sure the silly metaphor helped in this regard, and it potentially distracted students from the key learning, especially before lunch.
- A central problem for this method is that it is not universal; a really good analytical writing method should cross-cut across all subjects, with only minor changes. This could never be used in any subject bar English. If students are to get really expert at analysis, as with any area of know-how, they should be putting this to use across the curriculum.
Finally: PETER, EPLWE, PEARL and the rest
Since my early flirtations with the two above methods, I have used a whole raft of other tools, all of which suffer from many of the pitfalls described above.
EPLWE (Evidence, Point, Language, Word, Effect) was developed for a particular exam (Edexcel Literature) in which – according to an examiner’s report – it seemed as if students were required to write lots of short, shallow paragraphs rather than anything with any depth
- For this, it worked. Students were able to churn these out at around one every three minutes.
- It resulted in a situation where students were using one type of analytical writing method in literature, another in language and yet another in history. Not ideal.
- It also had two Es, explain and effect, which made it difficult to learn.
The same can be said for PETER (Point, Evidence, Technique, Explain, Reader response) and PEARL (Point, Evidence, Analysis, Reader Response, Link). Both of these have their good points and, to be fair to them, students have and will continue to perform well in examinations using these methods. But – and this is a big but – none of the above are really fit for purpose. I will recap the reasons why:
- Most rely on a confused and erroneous use of command terms, leading potentially to student error
- Most are only suitable for one small area of our own subject, sometimes only for one exam. As such, students are never in a position to develop a level of comfort and expertise
- Apart from PEE, which I have seen used on other subjects, none of the above are truly suitable for other academic areas that require analysis of evidence, such as history.
- And finally, the most damaging reason of all: anyone who “does” analysis professionally, i.e., academics, journalists and so on, do not use any of the above methods. As such, all of them are gross over-simplifications and are symptomatic of a production line, low expectations approach to teaching. If we really want students who are good at our subject, we should be teaching them to analyse language as a “junior version” of how it is done in the real world, by experts.
After reading the following blog posts by David Didau (@learningspy), here and here, I am now convinced that there is another way, a way that avoids many of the issues listed above. For the last 6 months, I have been putting this into practice with my students.
The method requires students to work through a list of five key areas as they write, speak and think about language. These areas, again in a visual created by Didau, are pictured below:
Students begin by ‘identifying’ their answer to the question and providing some evidence for their opinion. They then ‘explain’ the link between their evidence and opinion. So far so P.E.E. Following this, students enter the world of real life academic English by of ‘exploring’ tentative alternative explanations for their evidence. Next, they pick and ‘analyse’ specific elements of language, before finally ‘evaluating’ the links to context by looking at writer’s intention and reader effect.
Here are some examples of my students’ early attempts to use this method:
- This method is challenging and rigorous, requiring a high level of knowledge about the text that students are analysing. They must know language features and word meanings, have a wide-ranging knowledge of the context of the text and most importantly understand the text well. This is a good thing.
- This approach – or at least so I think – would be suitable for any subject where students write analytically. The point is that there are different areas of knowledge that come to bear in analysis, and this method asks them to use them all. As such, whether students are analysing a poem or a historical source, they can still apply this procedure.
- Command terms are used accurately.
- While going through each level, each time might not be quite what an academic does when looking at a text, I think that, broadly, this is much more in line with an “expert” approach to analysis. It is training students, albeit at a lower level, to become comfortable with an approach to analysis that could take them to university and beyond.
- Finally, it allows a stepped approach to the teaching of analytical writing. When first becoming familiar with the idea of giving an opinion about a text and supplying evidence, students can use only the first few levels. They can progress up the scale as they become more familiar with the different areas of knowledge required at each.
- This is not the easiest approach to remember, although using Didau’s idea of zooming-in and zooming-out really does help. It does need constant practice to get right, and, as such, introducing students to it just before a big exam might not be a good idea. I think they need a while to get it right.
- This is not the kind of method where you can get students writing analytically early on in your study of a text – or at least not with any great success. Students need to build up a strong knowledge base of language techniques, contextual information and detailed knowledge of the text itself before they can hope master it.
- On its own, this does not do enough to help the students build an advanced analytical vocabulary. To combat this, I have created a set of sentence starters that fit within each area, as well as different words that students can use instead of ‘shows’ and ‘suggests’. I provide a small set of examples of above, although the full set can be downloaded here: Analytical Writing Stems
These are just a small selection of the whole group, which I have arranged around my classroom so that students can look around and choose different ways to phrase their analysis. Those with a sharp eye might also spot that I have related each level to the SOLO taxonomy. Controversial, I know, but this links with the way that I like to discuss students’ acquisition and use of knowledge in my lessons. I should also note that, while I have no link to give, these were influenced by an idea of The Learning Spy’s shared at a CPD event.
The idea with this is that not only are students engaging in an analysis that is varied in the areas of knowledge it uses, but also that they are phrasing this in a sophisticated way. An absolutely fantastic blog post from Reflecting English that deals with many similar issues to this can be found here.
What about the skills-knowledge debate?
As far as I am concerned, teaching students this – and any other – method of analysis as a “skill” is a waste of time. As I mentioned above, this method is ineffective if students are not equipped with the requisite knowledge about the particular text(s) that they will be analysing. A recent, excellent post on this subject, found here on Chris Hildrew’s ‘Teaching: Leading Learning’ blog put it in a way that I like: this, and many other things like it, is not a skill but ‘know-how’. To again purloin some ideas from David Didau, teaching students an analytical writing method is an example of ‘procedural’ rather than ‘propositional’ (fact-based) knowledge – a difference only of degree, however. Students can learn how to follow this particular system, and this knowledge will serve them well, but only if they pair this with some – much more important – factual knowledge of language and the text itself. For a vastly clearer discussion of this topic, please see the two posts above.
And again, for download, here are my Analytical Writing Stems.
Thanks for reading.
Elsewhere on this site, I discuss what I consider to be the problems with a traditional model of school CPD. I also discuss what I consider to be the foundational principles for a training programme that avoids this ‘CPD Paradox’.
The three principles that I have found helpful in designing and leading effective CPD are that the programme is designed to make trainees accountable to try out techniques in the classroom, individual sessions include some in-built uptake time – so that teachers are forced to practice new techniques then and there – and finally that sessions are, as far as possible, participant-led.
Participant-led CPD sessions are important for numerous reasons, chief among them that, by getting the recipients of the training to ‘buy in’ to the learning, they are more enthused and engaged with the session content. Equally, unqualified and newly qualified teachers are – in my experience – likely to do a more thorough job than a deputy principal with a thousand other responsibilities. That said, new teachers clearly don’t have the breadth of experience and knowledge required to actually design good CPD sessions; thus, while they can make effective CPD facilitators, getting them to actually develop and plan the material for themselves would be a mistake. This is where Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion comes in.
For those who are not familiar with this book, I would urge you to buy a copy immediately. For my money, it is the very best tool for learning concrete strategies that will make a massive difference to student outcomes. While it is suitable for all teachers, I think that is particularly good for new teachers: the techniques are easy to grasp, do not contain too much challenging theory and are perfectly designed for the process of experimentation and reflection that characterises the first years of a teacher’s career.
There are two copies of this book out there, the original version, containing an in-depth explanation of each of the 49 techniques, and the ‘Field Guide‘. It is the latter that I would suggest is particularly appropriate for CPD, although the former has slightly more material in it. My suggestion would be to get a copy of both.
Both books contain the same 49 techniques, ranging from areas such as high-quality questioning and rigorous lesson planning to creating a strong classroom culture. Alongside an explanation of each technique, however, the Field Guide also contains ready made CPD activities, guided questions and reflective tools as well as a DVD showing each technique in action. This makes it perfect for participant-led CPD. There are already techniques and training materials in place; all the trainee session leader needs to do is put them together into a session. This is extremely quick, taking on average about half an hour, and also saves the person in charge of the CPD programme – me! – huge amounts of time.
The above is my ‘Professional Studies’ timetable for 2o13-14, an in-depth discussion of which can be found here. The sessions in purple are my TLAC (Teach Like a Champion) sessions, occurring roughly once every four weeks. I selected and ordered the 49 techniques from the book based on what I considered that new teachers would need or want to know, as well as on my judgement about which techniques are the best:
- 100% Compliance, What to Do, Slant – I began with what I considered new teachers need to know first, which in this case are three techniques designed to help build a firm and effective behaviour management system.
- Entry Routine, Threshold – Next, to help participants refine and perfect their behaviour system are two techniques that work on creating a calm and ordered starts to lessons.
- Positive Framing, Strong Voice – In the final session dealing with behaviour management, these techniques deal with ensuring compliance by learning to give behaviour instructions that are at once relentlessly positive yet also firm.
- No Opt Out, Wait Time – In my experience, once new teachers have got behaviour issues sorted out they enter a phase I like to call ‘The Inept Questioning Stage’. They have worked to ensure compliance, and now use questioning to drive lessons forward, mainly I think because this is the way that they were taught. The two techniques here are designed to improve the efficacy of questioning, particularly relating to student accountability.
- Right is Right, Stretch It – Next, two techniques designed to build academic rigour into questioning practice, the first to ensure that students give satisfactory and correct answers and the second to help teachers ask more challenging follow-up questions.
- Improving Pace in Lessons – At this point – at least theoretically – trainees have acquired skills in solid behaviour management and questioning. Now is the time to deal with lesson planning (yes, I do think that behaviour and questioning skills are more important to learn first: without these, a lesson – no matter how well planned – just won’t work. I will also point out that other sessions in my CPD calender deal with planning issues much earlier on). This session looks at a series of techniques designed to develop pace in lesson planning and delivery.
- Tight Transitions, Circulate – Dealing very much with lesson delivery, these techniques look at what teachers can do to make their lessons run more smoothly, thinking about strategic movement around the room and how to improve transitions between activities.
- Shortest Path, Name The Steps – Next, two techniques that deal with efficient lesson planning, looking at the planning of efficient and organised lessons.
- Ratio, Explain Everything – Finally, two of the more advanced techniques dealing with upping the amount of mental work that students do in class.
Below, I attach an example session that I put together when I launched the programme. All the rest of them were led by trainees. I opted to have my NQTs (2nd year trainees) leading the sessions, while my unqualified teachers were participants, creating a rota to share the duties equally amongst the NQTs, who each led two sessions, spaced across the year.
To outline how simple this session was to plan, I will discuss it briefly. The session begins with the reading component; the chapter is split up into the seven different elements that make up the overall strategy, each on designed to help teachers correct behaviour consistently and positively. Trainees read, summarise and feedback on each section.
Next, the trainees work together on a worksheet from the book, requiring them to re-write a series of behavioural instructions to make them positive and match the different techniques. ‘Absolutely nobody is looking at me right now’, might, for example, become, ‘I need all eyes on me’, for a Live in the Now correction or, ‘I think that we have forgotten that when I count to five I need all eyes on me‘, for an Assume the Best.
Finally – this is a part of the session that I insist on – participants ‘go live’ and practise the techniques on each other. In this case, the book contains some role play examples which they can use, taking turns to play students and teachers to practise using the techniques.
I don’t think that using this book should take the place of other more substantive CPD sessions; as you can see by looking at my schedule, TLAC reading groups form only a quarter of the total training programme. I do, however, think that it is a fantastic way of having sessions that contain quality teaching and learning techniques but that can be run by the trainees themselves.
One of the more frustrating elements of being an induction coordinator is that, despite how hard you work at providing good CPD, pretty much the most vital element of helping new teachers improve is out of your immediate control. This is subject mentoring. For those not steeped in the lingo of Teach First, this means a member of the trainee’s department who takes responsibility for their day-to-day mentoring.
From personal experience (as mentor and mentee), as a subject mentor you are the person who has the most profound impact on a trainee’s development. This input can make the difference between indifferent progress and general misery at the start of a teaching career to a teacher who is motivated and equipped to improve.
To start with, I think it helps to build a picture of good and bad mentoring.
Being an effective mentor is not rocket science. It’s not even particularly onerous. It doesn’t – or at least doesn’t often -require giving up hours of valuable free periods to your mentee. What it does require is that you keep close attention to the targets that are set within your (weekly) mentor meetings, provide assistance – in terms of modelling, resources and advice -towards meeting them and track carefully whether they are being met. Equally, it requires that targets set are appropriate, achievable and linked.
To my mind, a good mentor meeting (30 minutes to an hour) should progress as follows:
1) Discussion of general issues: This section of the meeting can end up taking the entire allotted time, moving towards being more of a “bit of a moan” than a purposeful meeting as tired, jaded trainees begin to unload all their issues on you at once. This is important but should not be allowed to take more than (say) ten minutes. If important issues arise, these can then be fed into the next stage of the meeting.
2) Discussion of targets: Here, you should bring up the targets set in the previous meeting(s). These can have rolled over for only a week or – if they are quite wide – for months. What is important is that you hold your mentee to account for working towards them. A trainee could, for example, have a target to ensure a calm and orderly start to the lesson. As a fairly wide target, this could be broken down into different areas such as greeting the students at the door, having a starter ready and building a reward and sanction system to deal with issues of compliance. What is important at this stage is that progress against these targets is measured and discussed, with evidence given for improvements.
3) The setting of new targets: Once previous targets have been discussed, it is time to set new ones for the coming week. If the trainee has now achieved a calm entry to the room, the next stage might to ensure that students all complete their starter in silence. Measures taken to achieve this can be discussed and the target should be recorded. Likewise, if the previous target had not been achieved, the discussion should focus on why and what could be done to ensure that it is in the future.
4) Accountability measures: Trainee teachers have such a lot on their plate that it is, for them, the easiest thing in the world to leave the mentor meeting and forget entirely about targets set until the following week. As such, in this section of the meeting you should focus on the leverage you have to ensure that your mentor is actively focusing on their targets. This can be as easy as setting up a drop-in observation to witness a part of a lesson. What matters is that it is in place for every single target set.
Sadly, following this structure is easier said than done. In my time as induction coordinator, I have witnessed many fantastic subject mentors with exactly the right balance of toughness, compassion and organisation required for the role. I have also seen a few who clearly would rather be doing something else and this shows in the quality of the mentoring provided.
So, how can you ensure that mentoring is of a reasonable quality?
Short of sitting in on mentor meetings (quite an extreme measure), I think that mentors can be given a nudge in two positive directions. Firstly, they can be given a system to help them ensure that targets are tracked and monitored. Secondly, they can be given guidance about areas to discuss within mentor meetings, particularly to ensure that targets set are useful and appropriate.
This is why I developed my ‘Subject Mentor Meeting Journal’. This has the following sections, each of which I will discuss below. The complete document – with a page for every week of the year- can then be found to download below.
1) Suggested ‘Reflection’ and ‘Technique’
These are based on the Teach First participant journal, as many of my first year trainees are from the Teach First programme. The reflection matches what the trainee themselves has to reflect on in their own training journal
For example, in their first week in September, first year trainees are asked to think about the following points:
- What is the ethos you want to create in your classroom? What steps have you taken this week in creating that?
- What does ‘Behaviour for Learning’ mean in reality now you have your own pupils? How does it relate to pupil success?
I agree with a ‘Behaviour for Learning’ focus in week one as this is the issue that most trainees will struggle with at first. The points are, however, quite broad and do not help trainees narrow down on specific behaviour strategies and techniques that they can use in their own classrooms. As such, in my journal, I include techniques from Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov that match the overall reflective focus for the week. Given the behaviour focus for week one, I chose ‘Entry Routine’ and ‘Do Now’, techniques designed to help teachers get students into the classroom efficiently and working quietly and calmly at the start of the lesson. This suggested technique is simply designed to give some form to the mentor meeting, ensuring that the you have specific strategies to discuss – if needs be – rather than talking aimlessly about the reflective foci.
2) Recap and reflection of last week’s targets
Next, there is space for discussion and notes about last week’s targets, specifically so that you, as the mentor, can keep a detailed record of whether targets are being met. There is also a choice as to whether targets are ‘carried forward’ to the following week or ‘met’ in which case new targets must be decided upon.
3) Setting new targets
Fairly self-explanatory, this section also contains prompts to remind the mentor to ensure that targets made are measurable and specific: a) what lesson / class can your mentee use this technique with and b) how can they practice this technique before trying it with a class? You should ensure that your mentee is comfortable with their target before they try it for real, even going as far as making practise it in the meeting.
Finally, this section asks your to reflect on what measures can be put in place to support your mentee in meeting their target. The aim is that you discuss with your mentee what they need from you, what you are going to do to support them and what you will be doing to check that they are making progress.
The idea behind the document is that it provides a weekly record of exactly what trainees are working on, how they are progressing against targets and what is being done to support them in this. Mentors can use this as a guide to their meetings and can keep a clearer eye on key areas in which help is required much more easily than if they are keeping all the information in their heads. Equally, it pushes them to ensure that their participants are accountable to make changes to their practice.
While it does not go all the way to guaranteeing effective mentoring, I think that it takes steps to ensure that mentor meetings are purposeful.
The entire document can be found below.
In this post, I will go over a few strategies that I use in my lessons to improve the quality of peer and self-assessment. While this is not a stand-alone training session but instead simply a collection of resources and tools that I use with my classes, they could easily be put together to become a discreet CPD session on developing skills in using peer and self-assessment.
Strategy 1: Aiding student reflection and metacognition
This is a very simple resource that I used in lots of my lessons as a plenary between activities. I have built a reflection display using the sentence stems here that occupies a wall of my classroom.
The sentence stems are as follows:
- The most difficult thing was…
- I think I need to improve on…
- I now understand that…
- I am now able to…
- If I did my work again I would change…
- I have learnt today…
- The thing I enjoyed most about today’s lesson was…
- The term………..was used today. It means…
- A question I have about the lesson is…
- The progress I have made today is…
The PowerPoint (attached below) can be randomised to provide an instant plenary or you can allow students to choose for themselves; the important thing is that the students are taking time to think carefully their learning.
Strategy 2: Ensuring good peer-assessment comments
When teachers begin to use peer-assessment comments with their groups, they are often surprised at the poor quality of comments the students make. The lesson to learn from this is that, like anything else, students need to learn how to be good at assessing work: we can’t just expect them to have as good a grasp of assessment as we have. They need to learn how to assess work properly. The great thing about peer-assessment is that if students develop skills in accurately judging and assessing other people’s work, they also improve at their own.
When students first start to peer-assess and they are not explicitly shown how to do this, they very often make comments like good handwriting,or write more next time, comments that give no guidance on how the work could be improved. The trick is to get them writing comments that explicitly look at the success criteria for the work and, in particular, which of these criteria have missed or used incorrectly.
Some strategies for building peer-assessment skills:
- Use a success criteria. There is pretty much no point asking students to peer-assess a piece of work if they don’t have a success criteria or mark scheme to work from. Otherwise, how will they know what they are judging the work against? The success criteria needs to be very clear and easy to understand, and students need to be reminded again and again that they should mention the criteria specifically when they set targets.
- Model peer-assessment for the students, using their own work. This can be done in a variety of different ways. One way that I often use is to take a photo of student work using my iPhone and then email it to myself. I then add the image to a slide so that all the students can see it. Finally, I assess it and write comments in exactly the way that I would wish them to. Although I have yet to do this, another potential strategy is through using a webcam connected up to your interactive whiteboard to allow for ‘live’ marking.
- Get students to annotate success criteria on pieces of work. To help them get familiar with the idea of judging a piece of work against a criteria, it can often help to have them annotate the piece of work they are assessing with the criteria before they write comments. If you get them to copy the success criteria down in the margin, they can also tick these off as they find them. Finally, it can help to give the students a different coloured pen to do this, as well as to write comments, as this will stand out from the normal ink colour as well as feeling more like ‘proper’ teacher marking. I use green.
- Give students examples of good and bad comments. The attached resource is a list of ‘banned comments’ such as ‘Good handwriting’, and ‘Next time add more detail’ as well as a list of sentence starters for more success criteria based peer comments, for example ‘You have not met all of the criteria because…’
3. Encouraging Dialogic Marking
This is a fancy way of saying that students should enter into a dialogue with their work and with each other about the improvements that they make to it. The procedure for using dialogic marking is as follows:
- Students complete a piece of work according to a success criteria
- This work is marked, either by the teacher or by a student. Comments are written which point out which criteria are missing from the work
- Students improve on their initial piece of work, attempting to make the improvements required
- Dialogic Marking: put the students in pairs and ask them to complete the following sequence of tasks – a) Show your partner what you were told to improve. b) Explain to them how you improved it. c) Ask them to write a comment proving that you met your targets d) Swap and repeat.
When discussing their targets, I have found that it helps to give the students a ‘script’ to use, and some sentence starters / models to help them write good comments:
In the ‘write a comment’ stage, it is also useful if students are aware to base their comments explicitly on the initial target set and whether this has been met. Any areas of shortfall should be mentioned in this.
Please find below slides containing the explanation of and resources related to dialogic marking.
This post links back to one particular element of my 10-Minute Skill Builders posts, a series of sessions designed to help teachers develop core skills through a series of short training sessions.
In this particular one, I focused on an element of Assessment for Learning that I think is incredibly effective -not to mention simple and quick – in making lesson planning responsive to what students achieved in the previous lesson. The idea is that for their plenary, the teacher designs a question or task that tests for the achievement of the learning objective. Good questions or tasks should be designed so that they test for misconceptions, giving quick and clear information to the teacher about exactly what needs to be covered in the following lesson(s).
I personally would take the use of an exit-ticket at the end of a lesson over pretty much all other Assessment for Learning techniques; I think that when done well they fundamentally demonstrate what good AfL should be about.
Success criteria for a good exit ticket:
- Designed to test for achievement of the learning objective
- Helps the teacher to determine misconceptions / issues with student understanding
- Quick to mark: the teacher should be able to work through an entire class set in under 10 minutes. I go through mine immediately after the lesson in the space before my next class comes.
The procedure for using an exit ticket, as discussed in the session, is as follows:
- Teach a lesson
- Ask students to complete an exit ticket, answering a question / set of questions that clearly tests whether the objective has been achieved
- Mark the exit ticket after the lesson
- Design a task for the beginning of the next lesson which responds to the different mistakes made on the exit cards
I attach the session below, which contains an example of a learning objective, exit ticket question and a before and after example of an exit ticket that a student in one of my classes completed. I hope this comes in handy!