Saturday, 22 March 2014

Listening to the words

I had a funny incident this week, when someone didn’t listen to me. My car, a small silver thing, was due for an MOT and service this week. I rang up and booked an appointment. During the call, I then asked for a courtesy car. However, when I arrived at the garage, I was informed that a car was not available. After huffing and puffing a bit, I was questioned if I minded what I drove. I said: ‘No.’ I was then taken to a forgotten part of garage’ forecourt and introduced to what can only be described as a monster truck. A huge ‘transformer’ style truck with wheels the size of me. Any minute, I thought, it was going to transform into this robot. This massive jeep, which wouldn’t look out of place in the Australian outback, was my car for the day. In fact, I had to travel to and from school in it. Surprisingly, there wasn’t space in the car park for it. All of this because someone didn’t listen properly.

Writing is a complex process, and, even after years of living on this planet, I haven’t fathomed everything yet about it. Just when I think I have things cracked, I notice something else about it. This week I tried something different with writing, but before I explain it, I think I need to discuss the thought processes that led to the idea.

In its simplest of forms: writing is the communication of ideas. It is the writing down of what a person thinks or feels or both. Of course, it can be something more meaningful and it can invoke emotion in others: and it can be, like, really really really pretty.  As English teachers, we can become a little bit obsessed in this ‘pretty’ writing. We even teacher students to write pretty. In fact, a lot of my marking involves making writing pretty. I could almost add ‘so it makes your writing look pretty’ to all my comments in exercise books.

 Write in paragraphs so your writing looks pretty.

Vary how you start your sentences so your writing looks pretty.

Use a range of punctuation marks so your writing looks pretty.

Like teenagers over a boy-band, we coo and sigh when we read pretty writing in books. Oooh. Ahhhh. Isn’t it pretty? Often English teachers enthuse passionately over how they love, adore, cherish a book and make comments that would sound stalkerish if they were attached to a human being. I’d die if I don’t read the next book. I could eat that book.  

 Admittedly, we all love pretty things. But, writing is complex. There is no point having pretty writing if it doesn’t fully make sense. We often, when teaching writing, focus on the pretty things, rather than focus on the communication aspect. Does this piece of writing communicate its ideas well? Or, has it used a range of punctuation marks? The two areas of pretty and communication are interwoven together and, honestly, cannot be separated as two entities, but I do feel we focus on the pretty stuff and neglect the communication aspect. We might get students to plan their writing. We might brainstorm ideas with them. We might ask them to read over their writing to make sure it makes sense. Unfortunately, I think that is the point at where we stop with the communication and then we wade into the ‘pretty’ territory. We get them to proofread things and we get them add bits, but I think that is all for the communication aspect. We show how other writers made their writing pretty. We give them lessons on ‘pimping up’ their writing.

 Over the years, I have done loads of self and peer assessments. And, usually, they are the equivalent of apple bobbing. Students dip in and out to correct a mistake. It is all about students searching for mistakes and errors. Again, it is about polishing something so it becomes pretty. This week I did something different and it was met with some success. Instead of getting students to read each other’s work, I got students to read their essays to their partner. The partner couldn’t see the writing or even mark it with a pen. Instead, they had to listen to the words. Listen to how ideas were conveyed in a piece of writing. When the listener heard something ‘rum’, they gently tapped them on the shoulder and explained what the problem was. I heard the following things in the discussions:

You are repeating points.

I don’t know what you mean by that.

You need to explain X further.

You use ‘however’ but this is another point from the same perspective.

You haven’t told the reader why this is bad.

I even joined a pair and listened to a student read her essay out. As a group, we commented on how her introduction didn’t really explain the direction she was going. We also reflected on how we kept hearing the words ‘animals’, ‘zoos’ and ‘caged’ all the time.  The Year 7 student as a result of this discussion noted these comments and worked on making it better. The advice given was probably more helpful than ‘check your spellings’. But, underwriting this whole approach is the communication of ideas. I am a bit woolly when getting students to check if a piece of writing is effective. It often gets bogged down with the ‘pretty’ things, and the translation of thought to writing is often forgotten. This was plain and simply about the communication of things. The ideas. The development of ideas. The reader’s understanding of ideas.

I am not suggesting that we stop proofreading. Far from it. I am suggesting that we need to look at the communication of ideas. We need to get students to communicate effectively and work on developing that communication. The focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar can neglect the ideas in the writing. Yes, spelling, punctuation and grammar help to express those ideas, but starting with dud ideas in the first place is not going to make a great piece of writing. Adding a few techniques and correcting a few spellings will not improve the whole text. Listening, rather than reading, could help students to see / hear where things need improving.

After all, students spend more of the day listening than reading and writing, so surely that skill is the strongest, yet we often refrain from using it to help students get better. It is always about getting them to read another person’s work? Not, listening to another person reading their work out.

Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

  1. I often ask students to read their essays aloud as a way of sense checking, but it often doesn't work so well as they can add words and phrases in that don't appear on the page but which make it make sense. It's a good idea to do this in pairs, I've not tried that.


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