I went to the ‘Big Smoke’ this week and thoroughly enjoyed it. My journey to any new city is always faintly similar to the moment when Kermit the Frog walks down a street in Manhattan. A small, weedy thing dwarfed by everything and everyone. Just not green.
In London, I was talking at a conference. My talk featured, amongst many other things, an approach I am slowly introducing to the department, and, possibly, the rest of the school at a later date. It is so new I don’t even have a name for it. I have toyed with some ideas, but they have all proved fruitless. Answers on a postcard, please.
I hate the phrase ‘more than one way to skin a cat’, but it seems apt here, when talking about reading in the classroom. Before another argument starts another thread on bile and hatred on Twitter, I am talking about the reading of a new text in a typical secondary English classroom and not the often ‘go to argument’ on Twitter of phonics. We, I think have a small problem, in English classrooms. We have a very practical approach to writing and that is usually adopted by all teachers. It generally involves analysing a text and then students create a similar text. This might be messed about a bit, but it is generally a variation on theme. But, reading is a different thing completely.
When introducing students to a new text, teachers use a vast array of interesting, engaging approaches to transform the writing on the page and make students read and understand it. Every teacher does something different with the approaching of a text. Some highlight key bits. Some look at the title and work their way through it. Others ask a number of questions as they read it. Like skinning cats, there are so many ways to get students to understand a text they have never seen before. Therefore, Mrs Jones will get her class to draw pictures first and Mr Stevens will get students to answer questions on the text first. Both ways are great little activities to get the students to grapple with a text. Surely, there is nothing wrong with this.
However, I think there might be a problem. We are preparing students for complex unseen texts at GCSE, yet throughout KS3 and KS4 we have used every approach under the sun to decode complex texts. The students will have had so many different models for unlocking the meaning of a text that is it any wonder that student often leave exam papers blank and empty of annotations. We have taught them so many approaches, but we haven’t taught them one, clear approach to understand a text. Yes, you, there at the back, might have done it before the exam, but you haven’t certainly done it over the years. You haven’t trained students in a logical process to sift for meaning. Instead, like me (I hold my hand up), you have searched for tasks or approaches to get students to engage and understand at the same time. We have tried to balance the two together – engagement and understanding. Our fear of something not being engaging in a lesson has probably led us down this schizophrenic approach to reading a text. A student could do approach A, B, C, D, E, F or G to understand a text.
We spend time at GCSE getting students to read texts correctly. We teach them a model, but wouldn’t it be more helpful if we were consistent with that model in schools. If students read all texts with the same model, then maybe we would see reading improve. Therefore, we are looking at having a consistent model for approaching a new text in lessons. Before you start thinking I am some kind of tyrant, the model is to be used in conjunction with other approaches, but the new model is to be the dominant one and the one constantly referred to and explicitly taught in lessons. Over time students will learn this model and have it as an automatic process. It will be committed to memory. Well, that’s the theory anyway.
So what is the model we are going to use? Well, here it is. I don’t think it is perfect but it is a starting point. The plan is for staff to use it with all year groups and with all kinds of texts. It will not be used every lesson and it will certainly not be used for a whole lesson. It is to last a maximum of 25 minutes and the teacher is free to do whatever creative thing they want to do after the analysis / reading. In recent classroom studies, we noticed that a lot of our underperforming boys struggle to keep focus for longer than 25 minutes.
Step 1: What don’t you understand? Make the unfamiliar familiar.
Step 2: What is it about? Summarising the text.
Step 3: What am I supposed to feel / think / understand?
Step 3: Language techniques
Step 4: Connections - What links can you make?
I have used the model above with Years 7 to 11 and it works. The great thing is students pick it up quickly and the planning is minimal. I have a PowerPoint with these questions and a few pointers. The students do the work. All I have to do is copy and paste the text into the slides. I even left it for a class to do it as cover work and the class did it well. It has cut my planning down and preparation too. Students have completed it as a class and then moved to doing it independently. I am impressed with the level of understanding that can easily be demonstrated. I would spend endless hours thinking how I could unlock a complex aspect and organically students get it without endless sheets of coloured paper or a whizzy PowerPoint with seventeen photographs in it.
I think we need to be a bit more consistent with the model we use for decoding unfamiliar texts. I think it is up to departments to decide the model or sequence of tasks, but I think it is a logical step in preparation for the new GCSEs. If there really is more than one way to skin a cat, I would prefer to do it only one way and get better at that one, specific way. At the moment, we have so many different approaches to reading a text that in each lesson a different approach is used and with each teacher a different approach is used. If we had a dominant model, then at least we’d teach them something well rather than many things ineffectively.
Understanding the text has taken a greater priority than focus on the reading skills. Yes, I want students to understand a text, but what I actually want is a student to be able to understand many texts….independently.
Perhaps, the question we need to ask as English departments is this: What is our model for reading an unseen extract? Let the creativity still take place, but agree in a way that students will read an unfamiliar text in your lessons, exams and in the future.
Thanks for reading,