Sunday 17 November 2013

Techniques for dummies

My presentation from the English Teachmeet

My presentation was a journey through my teaching of techniques. I discussed what I do to get students to explore language choices effectively. We have so many resources, yet we don’t have any clear step by step instructions of how to approach things and this is problematic if you are new to teaching English, or if you want to have a clear structure in your teaching. There is no single way to teach, yet it would be nice to hear how people approach things.
Our common approach to teaching techniques is often based on two approaches.  One: what students notice in a text. Two: asking leading questions highlighting key things.  There is also the teaching of a specific technique through writing but today I am mainly concerned with the analysis of techniques. Our questions usually sound like these:

       Why did the writer use the word ‘++++++’?

       How does the writer make the writing dramatic?

       How are questions used effectively here?

       How does the reader feel at the start and how does the writer create that feeling?

       What effect does the use of emotive language have at the start of the text?

I have felt that the two approaches don’t always work well for me. They are two extremes. One structured and the other not. Occasionally, I might use both approaches, yet I have always felt underwhelmed with the results. In fact, I felt that my whole approach to analysis was limiting. Approach one was trying to build independence yet it was based on what I had taught students previously. Approach two was dependent on me leading and students explaining. Therefore, I needed to think how I could get students to explore without being too dependent on me.  I needed some steps and approaches that would stagger the progress from explain to exploring. We seem to flip at the moment between the two.


Independence – choices – exploring (A/B)

dependence – formula – explaining (C/D/E)

The secret I find to writing effectively about techniques is about doing three things at once: talk about what the writer has done; explain how the reader feels; and explain why the writer wants people to feel or think this way. Hopefully, some of the approaches below help to address some of these things. Each of these I have experimented with and I am still experimenting with them.  

Approach one:  creating sentences.

This worked really well as a starter as it allowed students to construct simple sentences that could be expanded at a later stage. It made students think and they produced some clever and insightful points. I usually get them to write 6 sentences as a starter or a plenary.  They then feedback their best ones. 

To extend it further, I have asked students to link two techniques together ( alliteration and 1st person perspective) to show an understanding that techniques work in combination with each other.

Approach two:  offering them alternatives.

This I have blogged about before, but again it is a brilliant starter or plenary. It engages students quickly with its multiple choice approach. We are always asking students to say why something is used, which is like plucking something out of thin air, and rarely show them the possible alternatives. This approach gives students a clear alternative to say why the writer picked one rather than the other. I have used it with poems, plays and non-fiction texts. It gets to the heart of the choices and makes students think. The question, ‘Why did the writer use a simile here?’ becomes slightly more concrete for exploring when turned to, ‘Why did the writer use a simile instead of question here?’.  In their discussions they will relate ideas to the purpose and effect and structure without direct input from the teacher. They are simply exploring.


Approach three:  offering them precise alternatives.

A variation on a theme, but nonetheless it works well. Some teachers use draft versions of a text to explore choices, but this one worked really well. It removes jargon and technical terminology that bog some explanations down. Simply it focuses on the meanings of the words and how the word functions in the text. I had a group discussing endlessly the difference between look and glance. Harper Lee’s writing is quite simple, yet even with simple choices there are layers of meaning.


Approach four:  looking at the wider choices

Shakespeare is both easy and difficult to teach. This approach I have used before, but I am refining it here. Getting students to think wider as a writer is important. Here the students explore what were the big choices made for the scene and explore why those specific choices were made. Again, this is about making the implicit explicit. These are often the biggest choices made by the playwright, but they are neglected by the dominance of language features.  This is part of a bigger document which I will share later.

Approach five:  predicting the use of choice

This approach is my most ‘out-there’ one. The students are told the context of a scene. In this case, it was Othello killing Desdemona.  They have to explain why the writer would use the word ‘it’ in this situation before reading a single line of text. Students explore in detail why the choices were made. For me, this approach worked as it removed a lot of the barriers to understanding here – the complex language and numerous allusions to things students are not familiar with. Rather than decode a text, they were thinking like a writer. Why would you use the word ‘honour’ in this situation? Furthermore, it took out that annoying simplification of Shakespeare that sometimes happens. Why study Shakespeare if you are going to reduce it? The students were able to explore  the choices even before reading the scene. Then, in the reading of the scene an extra layer of analysis was added as they searched for the techniques or noticed what the writer actually did.
These are just some ideas and my exploration of teaching techniques is just an experiment with some positive results. I am going to take it further and apply it now to writing. For example:

Write a letter to the producers of X-Factor persuading them not to use the chairs again?


rhetorical question vs emotive language vs fact

I am going to get students to discuss which approach is best when writing the letter. We will explore the choices at the same time that we write. Write like a reader and read like a writer.

Thanks for reading,



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