Sunday, 31 January 2016

Summarise, synthesis, simplify or suggest

The new GCSEs have brought with them some new types of assessments. One, in particular, is the summarising question on Paper 2 of the GCSE English language paper. Most exam boards have had some kind of summary question, but, strangely most of the exams I have prepared students for have lacked this type of direct summary question. Therefore, I am a bit at sea with this kind of question. It also doesn’t help that the text students are going to be asked to summarise will be texts from either the 19th or 20th centuries. The summary question tends to ask students to write down what is explicit and implicit in the text.

When trying to explain the summary task, we often get students to use their own words. However, I am starting to think that maybe we are being a little bit too simplistic with how we approach things. The recent AQA guidance even supports this simplistic approach. It suggests that teachers could teach students the phrase ‘we can infer from this...’ which is a phrase I have never uttered in my whole life. However, in English we have tended to adopt the ‘this suggests’ pattern of inference. Pick something and then say what it hints, suggests, implies, or, as usually is the case for most students, what it actually says. We use it again and again, but is it the most effective way to get the best inferences? My answer: no.

As people might have picked up on recently in the blog, I am mad about vocabulary at the moment and I think vocabulary is the answer. As teachers, we have used the quote/inference structure to build and develop the meaning in written responses. We get them to start a point. We get them to find a quote. We get them to say what the quote really suggests to us. We get them to explain their idea further. It is a laboured and slow development of an idea. It takes students ages to get to the meaty good points, and you know, as a marker, where to go for the marks. However, you probably have several sentences beforehand that wastes things. But, as a structure, we use it because students get there in the end. Plus, it gives weak students a formula to follow.
How could vocabulary change this structured approach? Well, let’s have a go at a piece of summary. 

 Summarise how the writer presents London in this extract.
This is not a dirty street, taken as a whole. The widow's house is one of the cleanest, and the widow's children match the house. The one house cleaner than the widow's is ruled by a despotic Scotchwoman, who drives every hawker off her whitened step, and rubs her door handle if a hand have rested on it. The Scotchwoman has made several attempts to accommodate "young men lodgers," but they have ended in shrill rows.
There is no house without children in this street, and the number of them grows ever and ever greater. Nine-tenths of the doctor's visits are on this account alone, and his appearances are the chief matter of such conversation as the women make across the fences. One after another the little strangers come, to live through lives as flat and colorless as the day's life in this street. Existence dawns, and the doctor-watchman's door knock resounds along the row of rectangular holes. Then a muffled cry announces that a small new being has come to trudge and sweat its way in the appointed groove. Later, the trotting of little feet and the school; the midday play hour, when love peeps even into this street; after that more trotting of little feet—strange little feet, new little feet--and the scrubbing, and the squalling, and the barren flower-pot; the end of the sooty day's work; the last home-coming; nightfall; sleep.

Source: ‘Tales of Mean Streets’ by Arthur Morrison
From the extract, you could probably get the following points:
1.       The streets are not all dirty.
2.       The widow and the Scotchwoman keep their houses clean.
3.       Every house has a child.
4.       The doctor’s visits coincide with the birth of a child.
5.       The child is born and the routine continues.

For most students, they will select these key points and repeat them. There are some small inferences made here, but on the whole these points can be easily selected from a text.

Then, typically, we get a student to select a quote to develop one of these ideas.

The one house cleaner than the widow's is ruled by a despotic Scotchwoman, who drives every hawker off her whitened step, and rubs her door handle if a hand have rested on it.

The students then goes: we can infer from this….
·         …the Scotchwoman is determined to be better than others.
·         …the Scotchwoman dislikes dirt and unhygienic people.
·         …she is obsessively clean.
·         …she doesn’t have much to do apart from clean.

To take this a bit further, we get a student to explore the text’s context to explore possible reasons for this inference. This where students justify ideas.

We can infer from this she is obsessively clean.
·         As she is Scottish, she might feel isolated and alone so the cleaning helps her to forget this.
·         She wants to fit in and doesn’t want people to criticise her.
·         She might not like where she lives so she wants to make it physically seem like she is living in a different place.

We could go on and on with developing these interpretations and inferences. Now, we might get to the ‘good stuff’ in time, but it doesn’t help with exam conditions. We need our students to make quick inferences and developed points. Sadly, I think if we follow this quote/inference structure, we will hinder our students’ abilities. We, possibly, need to see words as making the ‘inferences’.  When I read the text for the summary, I jotted down these words:

Pride, competitive, determined, cleanliness, hygiene, compromise, crowded, monotonous, hopeless, no escape, fixed, fate, repeated and routine

What if students read texts with this way of thinking? Of course, I am, I hope, a skilled reader, but I can make quick references. I could summarise in a word what is really going on in the extract. I can reduce it down to a word and make inferences at the same time.
Let’s take the word ‘pride’:
·         The streets are generally dirty and there is a lot of poverty, but these women want to make their world better by making it clean.
·         These women make the place better.
·         These women care.
·         These women feel as sense of duty.
·         These woman work against the stereotype of the poor being lazy and dirty.

When you start with one of the ‘inference words’ you start at a level that is a sophisticated level of understanding. You bypass all the fluff and get to the good stuff quickly.
The extract shows us the sense of pride and competitiveness several women have over the cleanliness of their homes, even though they live in a poor, neglected and impoverished area of London.
But, I think we have to get students to think in words, and I don’t think we do this as often as we should. We get students to think of words when they are describing things in writing, but not enough in reading analysis. And, I think to help students better, we need them to think in words and think of words quickly. We need to avoid that ummm …err….ummm…errr. We need them to be quick and sparky with words to describe things and we need to give them more words. I think starting with words helps develop interpretations and ideas. Does a student know what an idea or a point is? No, but they can give you a word to describe what is happening in a text.

This week a student of mine wrote about Curley’s wife’s death. He used these words:

animalistic, clumsy, rushed, panic driven, without skill

This student floats around a D grade, but these word helped to develop the quality of his ideas almost instantly. The great thing is that these words appeared in the opening line of his paragraph. If students like him start with the ‘inference words’, then they a more likely to do better with the rest of the writing. All too often, as teachers we read directionless writing and it is only the last paragraph where the student gets. ‘Inference words’ start the complex thought from the beginning.

So what am I going to do from now on to help support summarising?  Here’s an example:

On Sunday morning one or two heads of families appear in wonderful black suits, with unnumbered creases and wrinklings at the seams. At their

sides and about their heels trot the unresting little feet, and from under painful little velvet caps and straw hats stare solemn little faces towelled to a polish. Thus disposed and arrayed, they fare gravely through the grim little streets to a grim Little Bethel where are gathered together others in like garb and attendance; and for two hours they endure the frantic menace of hell-fire.

Most of the men, however, lie in shirt and trousers on their beds and read the Sunday paper; while some are driven forth--for they hinder the housework--to loaf, and await the opening of the beer-shop round the corner. Thus goes Sunday in this street, and every Sunday is the same as every other Sunday, so that one monotony is broken with another. For the women, however, Sunday is much as other days, except that there is rather more work for them. The break in their round of the week is washing day.

1.       Get students to find examples to support these words: uncomfortable, forced, duty, pride, boredom, awkward, apathy, repetition   

2.       Get students to spot the odd ‘inference word’ out when describing the text: laziness, repetition, smugness  

3.       Track an inference. Highlight all the aspects that show the people didn’t want to attend church.

4.       Get students to select from a series of options to describe the text:
Comfortable / Uncomfortable
Pride / Shame
Enjoyment / Boredom

5.       Give students statement to decide if they agree or disagree with it.
a.       The children don’t like going to church because they can’t see their friends.
b.      The women don’t like having the men in the house sometimes.
c.       The men like to go to the pub to be with their friends.

In the beginning, there was the word and I think in the beginning of analysis there should be words. I have to get better at helping students articulating complex ideas, and thoughts, and the words are the secret to doing this. If we can get students to use words to infer meaning from the start, then more complex thought is going to happen. This is where ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ is for me a load of baloney. Describing is seen as a basic skill, when it is in effect the most useful and important. You need to be able to describe complex ideas before you can explain them.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. I know 'inference words' sounds bad; I will think of something better, one day.


  1. Great article, thank you, very interesting idea that I will try out. I too think that vocabulary is a golden key to more sophisticated writing, it offers new choices in how we express ourselves and the learning of more sophisticated vocabulary allows you to formulate, and put symbols of meaning to, the more complex and abstract concepts wrapped within 'higher level' thought in order to express ideas that may already be there, but without the vocabulary to give them life on the page, remain frustratingly out of reach.

  2. I have just come across your blog and I love it! I find it so interesting to look at different ideas and suggestions about how I can perhaps teach things a little differently to yield greater engagement as well as sophistication in writing. I'm actually just thinking of a really bright student that gets so wrapped up in pre-emptive waffle- I will try this out and see if it helps! Thank you :)