Friday, 31 May 2013

Sentenced to six years of APP - APP and reading

I am preparing for my first ever teachmeet in Leeds next week and part of that is talking about sentences. Next week, I will blog about the topic of sentences, but in my preparation for it, I thought I’d talk about APP in English - with a bit about sentences at the end.  

I remember a couple of years ago when APP was introduced as the next best thing in teaching. It was designed to make marking easier and more focused; yet, at the same time it reduced the English language to a series of bullet points. There were a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ at the time it was unveiled. I was quite excited at the time, as it meant that marking could be more focused and you could ditch the usual general marking of things like spelling and accuracy, and focus on word choice and the effect on the reader. Then, schools went mad and everything was obsessed and focused on doing it, and showing evidence in lessons of its use. It is interesting in this age of ‘progress in lessons’ there is very little mention of APP (assessing pupil progress). Obviously, there is a political agenda; it was a Labour initiative and so under a Conservative rule it is neglected, but I think it is still bubbling away in pockets of classrooms.    

Several years on, I am not so positive about it. Don’t get me wrong – it can be used effectively, but is only a part of a successful approach to teaching. From an English point of view, I struggled with the framework because of the assessment focuses (or foci – depending on the attitude of the reader). To get about a level 6, everything becomes vague. Level 7s tend to do things with flair and creativity, which sadly doesn’t really equate to the mark scheme. It almost says ‘does it really, really well and better than others in the class’.  I always felt that the APP grids were focused on the level 5s and how to achieve to a level 5. As soon as you got to a level 5, it read as ‘blah blah yes you do it really well’.

Furthermore, the grids allowed you to have students being proficient in writing for an audience and using superb vocabulary, yet the basics of sentence control and punctuation were often missing from their writing. You ended up with a mixed view of a student’s capabilities. It almost said: yeah, I know you can’t punctuate to save your life, but look... pretty words.  Some people might say that this was great because it gave an idea of the student’s priorities. It directed them and showed them how to improve. Other people might say that this just masked their weaknesses, as naturally most people will ‘upsell’ a student’s skills. I always felt that you shouldn’t be getting to the dizzy heights of a level 6 unless you could punctuate accurately. I recall one teacher insisting that you couldn’t give a level 5 unless they used paragraphs, which has stuck with me to this day.

One major problem: showing evidence of it once means that you are proficient in a skill. I have scored a goal once, by accident. I was standing near a goal, when a ball hit me and bounced into the net. This one event does not make me suitable for the England football team. Just because you do something once, doesn’t mean you are an expert. It just means that you are lucky. I was lucky. Students are lucky too and get it right by accident and fluke. But, does that mean that they are skilled at that particular element?  The APP grids were highlighted, ticked or shaded if a student demonstrated a skill once. As evidence, it looks great. But, it really masks the whole problem: what can they do independently?  Guided by the APP grid, you could probably help students to show a lot of high level skills. Take a lesson for each focus and you can tick them off one by one, but what can they really do without the 'stabilising wheels' of your help and instruction?

It became a reductive process:  Today, we are looking at AF3 and AF5.   Lessons became focused on a very narrow skill and the learning process was reduced to a simple step ladder. This isn’t too much of a problem in small doses, but it can lead to a culture of breaking down each skill one by one and teaching them in isolation. When looking at a poem, you tend to look at one aspect and then bring other aspects in along the journey. I felt that a culture focused on AF1 or AF2 meant that it became stuck on that focus. The beauty of teaching English is that you can start talking about a poem and end up looking at something completely different by the end. To paraphrase a quote from Doctor Who, if we capture a star and put it in a box, we miss the true beauty of the star, for the star is beautiful in relation to other stars in the sky. Boil a lesson down to focusing on sentence structure alone and you miss the relationship between the audience and the purpose of the text. You also miss how the punctuation works with the structure used to create a desired effect. Furthermore, you miss out the use of effective vocabulary that is necessary for a sentence to be really effective.

I use APP occasionally, when the task is appropriate, but it isn’t the focus for all assessments. It is a tool. A tool for helping students improve, but it is not a hammer to hammer in learning. It can help with AFL, but it isn’t the miracle cure that we were led to believe. Recently, I was preparing students for writing about a novel and I was faced with the grid of doom again. Looking at a huge grid and colouring different bits doesn’t help them or me, so I came up with these sentence to help them unlock that skill. In the past, I have given them bullet points or a list of questions, but my new strategy helped them better:  I gave each student a set of structures for them to articulate the skill I was assessing. Too many times have I talked about a skill for students to repeat bland statements like: ‘The writer uses structure to show us the theme of loneliness’.

I warned students that this wasn’t a case of a Woolworths' pick and mix. They had to find one that best fits what they were trying to say. I know they are quite dull and boring, but they are a starting point for them to articulate the complex ideas. They are much more effective than looking at a grid and saying to get a level 5 you must link the structure to the meaning and take several quotes from across the text to support your ideas. The students that used them demonstrated effective evidence of the skill assessed.

AF2 – Retrieve information from texts and use quotations 

·         We see this when ‘___________________’.

·         An example is when _________ says: ‘________________’.

·         The best example of this is when _______ says ‘___________’

·         POINT: ‘___________________’.

AF3 – Infer or interpret information or ideas

·         This suggests that …

·         He could also be hinting that ________

·         Although it seems that he is saying ____________, he really means_______ .

·         The fact that he ____________ and ___________ shows that he means ______

·         On the outside it looks like he _____________________. However, on the inside he is _________ because he says_______

AF4 – Comment on the structure of the text

·         At the start, you notice that_________

·         The second half of the books shows a change in the way that __________________

·         As the book progresses, we see_______________.

·         The more ______________, the more__________________.

·         As the story progresses, we see that_____________________ .

·         By the end of the book, we see ________________ .

·         The last chapters explain __________________.


AF5 – Comment on the writer’s use of language

·         The writer uses _____________ to show / highlight / suggest ______________________ .

·         The character tends to use ____________ when ___________________.

·         When the character uses___________, it shows us that_________________ .

·         The use of ___________ suggests that _____________________.

·         By using ______________, the writer shows us that._____________ .

AF6 – Comment on the writer’s purposes and viewpoints

·         It would seem that the writer is ________________________ towards___________.

·         The writer suggests that ________________ .

·         The writer uses __________________ to show us that ______________________.

·         The writer wants the reader to feel _________________ so that _________________ .

·         The novel demonstrates the writer’s view that _______________________________.

Thanks for reading. I think I have been let off early for good behaviour.




  1. These starters are really useful - thanks, Chris. I agree with you that the grids can be restrictive and reductive. It's really how you use them, in the end - you're dead right.

  2. Absolutely agree that doing something once does not mean that a student is proficient in that skill. The belief it does has led to no benefit for the student - all it does is provide them with an artificially inflated grade at the end of KS3. The result? A harder slog for the KS4 teacher, who has to not only teach the content of the GCSE, but also the basic skills that they have apparently already mastered.