Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Lion, Grammar and a Science Cupboard

I am well and truly knackered. I’m pooped. I’m exhausted. I’m tired. I’m drained. I feel like a lion - ready to bite someone's head off. The last few weeks have been very busy, and I still haven’t reached Christmas yet. Anyway, I am still soldiering on with the blog. Why? Well, it has become a bit of habit now.  Throughout a week, I often think of ideas to inspire me to write and that fuels the fire. Plus, if I don’t keep up the habit, I’ll stop completely.

This week I am being greedy and I am writing about two small things this week.  The first is a little bit of grammar and the second is about an idea relating to my ‘Literacy Across the Curriculum’ role.

A couple of weeks back I went a bit mad about grammar. This week I thought I write another little bit inspired by a book I read this week. I have never read any Rose Tremain books before, but I picked up ‘Trespass’ from the local Oxfam book shop and I was pleasantly surprised. It was an effortless read and thoroughly enjoyable. However, as I was read it, I came across several sentences that I like the construction of.  As a Christmas treat, I thought I’d share them here and will add more as I read lots of books, hopefully, over the festive period.

[1] The road unspooled on and on, rising, falling, rising, turning, falling.

The sprouts cooked on and on, twisting, turning, changing, rising, surfacing.

[2] It was all right to be alone, alone in the darkness, alone in her own mind.  

I felt full, full of food, full of bad television, full of incessant chat.

[3] Every day, Kitty felt smaller, more ugly, more useless.

Each hour, I felt fatter, less thin, less attractive.

[4] Melodie looks away, up, sideways, far away at the jumping light, at the invisible wind.

I look outside, down, away, beneath, near the dazzling presents under the table.

In my previous blogs on grammar, I have talked about my preference for teaching explicit sentence structures to allow students to form varied and interesting sentences in their writing. I am planning to use these sentences and many more as little starters, plenaries or tasks, where students respond to a task using one of these structures.

I often tell students to lift sentence structures from the reading material in the GCSE exams. Of course, they need to change them and make them their own, but it makes their writing much more varied and interesting.


The Science of Explaining Things 
As co-ordinator of ‘Literacy Across the Curriculum’, things have been very busy. I haven’t had any period of transition at all. This is because there wasn’t anyone in the role before me. Well, there had been, but that was long before me. Therefore, there hasn’t been much in the way of cross-curricular literacy that is explicit. I have a blank slate to work with. A fresh start. A new beginning. In other words:  a whole lot of work to do. I know a visit from Ofsted is imminent, so I have to prepare for that. But, I cannot rush things. I need to have a clear plan, strategy and direction. And not a quick-fix sticky plaster that covers the wound, rather than heal the problem.

I gave a small presentation this week to several heads of departments of my ‘vision’. They were very supportive and positive about the direction I want to take the school in. In it I raised a big issue, which I think is at the heart of this new drive on literacy: grammar. You look at the new tests for Year 6s at primary school and you can see it spelt out clearly. The sample material highlighted that ‘old-school’ grammar teaching is where the direction for teaching is going. Furthermore, I found a mark scheme for the tests and the proportion of marks given to vocabulary and grammar was surprising. Bye bye WOW words!

My vision in the school is about changing the way students use writing. At the moment, like most schools, our students have the ‘Nike attitude’ to writing. Just do it. Sadly, that attitude doesn’t make for great writers and writing. The exam system hasn’t helped either. The content driven nature of courses has meant that writing has been squeezed out. Just do it. My challenge is break this view of writing. Straightaway, we have started focusing on proofreading,  getting students, at all levels, to revisit their writing and check it. Next term, we will be working on planning, so that we can extend the writing process and get students to see that writing is crafting a piece of work and not a race.

In my role, I am also advising departments how they can improve their literacy and that is where I want to focus on now.  A few departments have raised concerns over students’ inability to explain things in the exams effectively. The students are able to describe something, but when trying to explain something they default to describing things again.  Most English teachers agree that you have to careful with terminology. Some students soak terms up and throw them back at you in any piece of writing they produce.  They might be explaining how tension is built in the opening of a chapter, yet they will direct you to some pathetic fallacy and fail to explain how it even works. They just know the technique sounds good. They think it makes their writing sound clever and that it will impress the teacher enough to give them a Level 7. I have had lessons where I have taught students a technique and then had weeks of that technique being highlighted in everything covered in the lesson. What has the writer done here? Pathetic fallacy. What is the best bit of the novel? Pathetic fallacy. What is the character’s weakness? Pathetic fallacy.  What would you like to know about this novel? Pathetic fallacy.

Just because in RE you can write and spell the word agnostic, it doesn’t mean you understand it or you can explain it to an examiner.

If teachers focus on the words, then students get hung up on using the words. Teach students what a subordinate clause is and they can spot one but then struggle to explain how writers use them – it’s bloody hard to do. That is why I am going to suggest to departments that they hold back subject specific terminology and focus on the ideas behind the words. Explain what respiration is without using complex terminology. Maybe ban them from even using some words.   If they explain things in simplistic terms and in Standard English, then they have a better chance of explaining things effectively, rather than cram every term under the sun. At a later stage, teachers can add the terminology. Imagine them writing for different audiences.

[1] Write an explanation of how photosynthesis works to a Year 2 student.

[2] Write an explanation of how photosynthesis woks to a university student.

The first task would mean they simplify the writing, but also the terminology too. This would highlight that a student has understood the concept. Then, rewriting it as the second task would help step up the writing.  Then, the teacher can insist they use those complex terms.

Along the way, we can then help them with grammar. Well, if you are explaining something, you need to be giving reasons. Say what happens, but also say why it happens. Use words like ‘as’, ‘so’ or ‘because’ to develop from a simple description to an explanation.

Overall, I feel that we need to be more explicit with how we teach writing in other subject areas. Put the terminology in the Science cupboard and bring them out at a later date. Start with the end point and work back. We want our students to do this, so we have to get them to do X, Y and Z so they are writing like that A* student.  

So long WOW words and subject specific terminology, and hello grammar.

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading,  

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