Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Subject of Sentences

The new AQA English Language GCSE has a bullet point on Question 2, Paper 1, suggesting students might want to comment on sentences. Well sentence forms, if we are going to be pedantic about things. It is a small bullet point, so it might be easily missed when students franticly write an answer to the question: How does the writer use language to describe…?

I have a lot of problems with asking students to write about sentences. I love a good sentence. They are squishy and joyously fun to squeeze and poke. I love a crisp, brief sentence like Susan Hill’s sentences when she isn’t writing horror stories. I also love crammed sentence like the one’s Dickens uses. Go on, just add another clause. The problem I have is that we are often so basic when talking about sentences.

In fact, part of the problem comes from the language we have to describe a sentence. The basic terms of simple, compound and complex actually hinder expression. I have seen students crow bar the following phrases into their analysis.

The writer uses a simple sentence to show how simple his thoughts are at the moment.

The writer uses a complex sentence to show how complex his thoughts are at the moment.

Sadly, the words simple, complex and compound are very misleading to students because of the terms alone. If a student then has cottoned on that you could replace simple, compound and complex sentences with long and short sentences, you then get sentences like these ones:

The writer uses a long sentence to create atmosphere and slow things down.

The writer uses a short sentence to create pace.

The problem is that students have, at this point, not said anything precise, or even meaningful about the texts. In their heads, it might sound good, but in reality they are pretty bland and meaningless. Part of the problem is the terminology. Another part of the problem is the fact that students view sentences as something to be analysed in isolation. All sentences have hidden tendrils. They link to the sentences before and after them invisibly. Therefore, any discussion on sentences must focus on the rest of the sentences. Take this example extract from ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus. It isn’t likely to be in the actual exam, because there isn’t enough for a student to talk about in terms of techniques; but it is enough for looking at sentences. Along as you have more than three sentences, you can say something meaningful.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

Source: The Stranger by Albert Camus

So, what can we say about it? Well, it has lots of short sentences, so the writer is building up the pace of the story. The sentences are mainly simple, so this shows us that the narrator has simple thoughts about the death. Wrong! You can see how meaningless these terms can be.

I think students should know what the subject of a sentence is and be able to spot the subject in a sentence. Look at the extract and you see the following subjects.

1: Mother

2: ?

3: I

4: That

5: It

Sentences two and three are a little bit more complex, so I will come back to those later. What is interesting for me is the fact that the subject changes across the extract and more importantly the first sentence refers directly to the mother and the last sentence indirectly refers to the mother.

The subject of the last sentence refers to ‘it’ which creates a sense of distance compared to the first sentence which refers directly to the ‘mother’ and her death.

The first sentence has the ‘mother’ as the subject to reflect the shocked the narrator had to the event. The lack of any other words describing the subject highlights a lack of connection or thought. The voice doesn’t refer to her as ‘my mother’ or even use a more personal noun to describe her like ‘mum’ or ‘mummy’ suggests there is a level of detachment.  

Now, sentence two is quite interesting, because it is a grammatically incomplete. It should be a continuation of the first sentence joined by the co-ordinating conjunction ‘or’. The telegram message as part of sentence three is full of broken sentences, but that’s the convention of telegram writing.

The writer uses a grammatically incomplete sentence to create a level of informality and make the writing seem conversational. Therefore, the reader develops a personal connection to the narrator as they are speaking to them personally.     

The ends of the sentences are interesting too: today, yesterday, tomorrow, yesterday.

The writer tends to end sentences with a reference to a time which adds to the sense of confusion of the narrator and highlight a level of obsession.

In our teaching of the language questions, I feel that we need to be especially cautious with how we present it. Students need some clear structured teaching. Simple terminology will not work alone. In fact, I’d actively work against students use the words simple, compound, complex, long and short. I’d use these questions instead.

What is interesting about the way sentences start/end?

What is the subject of each sentence?

What is the connection /changes between the subjects?

How are the sentences structured?

Are sentences complete or incomplete?

How are the sentences linked?

From that starting point, I feel you come to most interesting points when talking about sentences. Then, you can add relevant terminology. However, there is nothing better for sentences than identifying the subject of each and every sentence. Then, look at how each sentence is linked.

It is interesting to note that identifying the subject of a sentence is directly supporting the structure question (Question 3) on the paper. My advice for teaching questions 2 and 3 on Paper 1 is focus on subject, subject and subject. Understand the subject of the sentences and extract and the rest follows.

No sentence is an island, so let’s stop treating them as discreet islands of meaning. Students, in fairness, only need to say one meaningful thing about sentences for question 2.  We just want that point to be meaningful and thoughtful. They can only be meaningful if students can see the trade routes in and out of that island.  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Patterns and dominant methodologies in English

I have focused this year at developing patterns within English teacher that help and aid learning. I have mentioned before the problem with how we teach English. There are so many ways to attack a book, novel or poem. Each one makes a great starting point for teachers to start teaching a text, but they make a terrible starting point for students to analyse a text independently. Mr Smith always starts poetry by looking at pictures. Mrs Jones always starts poetry by picking out words. Miss Bloggs always starts poetry by looking at the poem’s title. Is it any wonder a large proportion of our students struggle to engage with texts when we have given them seventeen different ways to approach a poem? But, it gets even worse, because each time we give students a poem we teach it in a different way.

My daughters are in the primary school wilderness years. The Year 6 exams are on the horizon and their teachers are preparing them for the future exams. However, I find something quite surprising: my daughters are being taught several strategies to divide numbers. They are then taught several methods to multiply numbers, over the course of a year. Now, I am no mathematician, but I feel that a dominant methodology is preferable to several dominant strategies. Sophisticated mathematicians, I presume, start with one methodology to solve an equation, before moving on to another one, when the first one doesn’t work. However, I feel that a student must have a clear preferred one as a starting point. When perfecting mastery, is it better to have one approach rather than seven differing approaches?  

I do feel for secondary Math’s teachers, when there are so many different methods out there to teach Maths. Inheriting thirty students with a different methodology for solving a sum must make teaching and differentiation difficult. The equivalent in English would be:

10 students who read books backwards

5 students who read books upside down  

2 students who read books from start to finish

3 students who read books by skipping every other page

5 students who read books by using reading the titles and pictures

10 students who read books by letting someone else read it for them

I can see with my daughters the struggle with the shift between methodologies and selecting the appropriate one. They haven’t got a definitive methodology or dominant approach. Now, apply that to English teaching and you can see how students struggle. What is the dominant methodology to approaching texts in your lessons? In fact, for years, books have been peddling lots of different methodologies to engage with texts. As English teachers, we have been dazzled by an engaging approach. Creativity has been the driving force behind education. Look at this creative way to teach this poem. Isn’t it creative? When you have creativity as a driver in education, you have engagement and fun not far behind. This would be great because they will engage with the poem and it will be fun. I have taught creative lessons because they were fun and engaging, yet they did not develop a student. I think time has taught me that the right text is good enough on its own. That PowerPoint does nothing. That image does nothing. That card activity does nothing. That drama activity does nothing. That drawing activity on it does nothing. The text, however, does something. In fact, a lot of something; I just need to work on developing that something.  

For all the reasons above, I have developed cognitive patterns in my teaching to aid and improve understanding and learning. A repeated pattern. A familiar series of steps. A routine. A clear methodology. As humans, we crave routine and predictability. Stress is often a result of unpredictable circumstances. Our school is due to have a visit from Ofsted. The visit might cause some stress, but that is nothing compared to the unpredictable nature of when that visit will take place. We could be paid a visit in a week’s time, a month, a term or next year. There is no routine. Ofsted creates panic because there is nothing concrete until it happens. You are constantly on edge because things are not secure. Ofsted might not intend to create fear and panic, but the secretive nature of when they drop in does.

Since becoming a Head of Department, patterning has been a key aspect. For years, we have repeated mock exams three times in a year, so students are familiar with the process of the exam. I am not that phased by the results. For me, it is about students getting used to the rhythm of the paper and the processes. We also have the 200 Word Challenge every week for students to build the pattern of regular independent writing. Now I might have to buy a shed load of new exercise books due to the amount of writing, but our students are used to the pattern of writing on a task without support or guidance, making sure they use a number of techniques in their work. It is a regular routine. I teach a lively Year 9 class last lesson on a Friday and they are silent that lesson. In fact, it is a great lesson.

Has our drive for creativity hindered the boys? Have we misread boys? Admittedly, we have tried various things to engage boys and we might have missed a key point. This natural desire for routine and predictability. Look at the computer games boys play. They are all about routine. You complete a level and at the end of the level is the baddie to beat. Each level is harder and the baddies get significantly tougher. Yes, there might be lots of flashing imagery, but the structure isn’t creative. There is a consistent routine. There is a pattern.  

I teach a low set of predominantly boys for the new GCSEs and I don’t teach them in a creative way. We have a series of patterns in the lessons. It has taken me three terms to embed some of the routines, but we are making some good progress. They are used to the patterns and my teaching is about constantly using those patterns and repeating them. One such pattern is an approach for analysing texts. It follows the pattern of 2, 2 and 1. When they are looking at the language of a text, they are to pick out two words of interest, two techniques employed by the writer and one sentence of interest. We repeat this pattern again and again with any text. In effect, I am supporting them to answer questions on the literature and language papers. Paper 1: Question 2 and 4. Paper 2: Question 3 and 4. I will repeat this pattern continuously in lessons so that it is an automatic natural process for the final exams.

I suppose that this experience has taught me that maybe we need a mature discussion on how we teach aspects of English. Do we teach one methodology / approach first and then add more as a student masters things? Or, do we focus on one dominant approach? In the classroom, we model behaviour. I fear, however, at the moment we model behaviour on a scatty mad professor. Our behaviour is creative and unpredictable but so hard for students to emulate. We need students to be systematic and methodical and that simply boils down to us.

Is a regular routine really a bad thing? Not, in my opinion, if it supports and helps a student to develop a strategy for learning.  We just need to fight the thought that systems and routines remove creativity in the classroom. A regular routine would also reduce planning and preparation and focus on the good stuff – the text.

Thanks for reading,