Sunday, 24 January 2016

Thanks for the memories...

The new style of GCSE has meant that the teaching of English has changed. The closed book exam has meant that there has been a big emphasis on learning quotes and knowing the set texts. No, really knowing the set texts. Added to that, there is the new emphasis on terminology. In fact, I’d struggle to find a question, apart from the summary question, that is devoid of any reference to terminology. It is all about the terminology.  And, when you look at where the terminology is referred to in the mark schemes, you see it is fairly low, meaning students need to be able to spot a technique before they have a chance of getting a high mark. So it is about techniques, techniques and techniques.   

One of the problems I have always found with students is the inherent ability to forget terminology daily, weekly and annually. I know when a Year 7 arrives they can spot a simile and alliteration at fifty paces, but when I they get to Year 10 they can’t spot it when it is looking them in the eyes with a big sticker on it, saying ‘I am a simile’. They have the knowledge, but they aren’t quick at recalling it. The knowledge isn’t at the top of their brain. It is buried under all the names for the parts of the plants, terms for DT and few mnemonics from Maths. I want to avoid conversations like this in lessons:

Teacher: What device is the writing using here?
Student: Dunno.
Teacher: Oh look it uses ‘like a’.  
Student: Is it alliteration?
Teacher: No, look its comparing one thing to another.
Student: Dunno.
Teacher: It begins with an ‘s’.  
Student: Symbol?
Teacher:  No. Give me strength. It is a simile. A simile.

As a subject, English hasn’t always had a drain on memory recall. Look at Year 11 students revising for exams. You see students have books and revision cards for Science and History, but for English they tend to have a few notes. We could say it is because the students see the subject as one that is concentrated on skills. They know they can read. They know they can write. They just, occasionally, think there is no need to revise for the subject.

The strengthening of the new GCSEs will mean a change in knowledge retention for schools. In my opinion, it will see subjects working harder than ever before to make sure things stick. One of my concerns for the next few years is making sure students have quick recall of literary terms. I want to make sure that students have a much faster recall of grammar terms and literary devices so that we don’t have the ‘buffering’ effect of waiting forty seconds as they rearrange the mental furniture of their brain and find the word ‘pathetic fallacy’ under the names for the bones in a leg. Like the timetables, we want the information to be retrieved quickly and now. So, what am I planning on doing?

Well, I was inspired by James Theo’s blog on introducing 19th Century fiction.

In particular, it was his use of memory aids and visual memory aids for literary devices. We are going to expect students to read complex texts, understand them and then spot literary devices in a short space of time in an exam. Now, I know we shot down VAK a long time ago, but the V in it interests me a lot.

Over the past term, I have been teaching ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’. Aside from teaching them stuff, I have been using images alongside the reading of the books. The images have been used in two ways.

[1] For each chapter / stave, I have generated a selection of six images. The latest version of PowerPoint means I don’t have to spend too long searching for images. The images were a mixture of events, similes or aspects featured in the text. At the start of a lesson, students would have to identify where the image comes from the chapter. Then, they would explain the writer’s reason for including it and the image’s symbolism. The easiest bit of resource making ever.
The images will then be used a second time, when we get to the end of the novel, revising key events. Then, to extend the learning further we will make connections between these aspects across the whole novel.

Then, in Year 11, when we read the novel again for revision purposes, we will use the images before reading the stave again. Students will try to place the images in order and explain what they convey in the stave.

I like the idea of using one resource many times and I think using images this way helps to keep the planning and resources down, but at the same time I am working on making the memory of the chapter / stave stick. One thing I am quite adamant on is that the images should not be photographs or stills from a film. They should be symbols of the images and not direct representation, where possible. When students are faced with endless streams of films, TV and websites, it takes a very powerful still to have a lasting impact. A drawing is something different.  

[2]   Each writer has a particular style and a bank of techniques they regularly use. I made a basic list of technique usually used by Dickens and Golding and then made a set of images. I printed the images out as flashcards. Then, for a series of lessons, I made students name the technique based on the picture. After that, students were able to reel off a list of techniques for the writer. We then applied that list to analysis. Students started analysing a text with the foreknowledge of what to expect.

The great thing about this is that students found additional techniques, which we added to our images. The bank of techniques is only the starting point. It gives them a concrete starting position which is better than the abstract, ‘what do you notice?’, approach.

I have enjoyed this approach because I now have a different approach to teaching novels / books / plays. If I take the image techniques of Golding and compare it to that of another writer, students will be able to spot the technical differences and similarities easily. I can also revise techniques constantly in a concrete manner. Instead of recalling the long-lost definition of a technique, I am airing that technique weekly and daily. In fact, I am going to use the images for our unit on travel writing. I am not going to write a list of techniques to include. Instead, I will get students to select their techniques and draw them. I will keep going back to those images. I will keep testing their knowledge.

The images will be everywhere and at every possible moment in lessons.

The use of pictograms has a lot of potential in our subject. What if we taught students symbols associated with literary devices from Year 7? We then revise that each year and test it every year.  Surely, by the time we get to Year 11 students will have a secure and automatic recall of the device and concept. We want students to learn, but it the holding of the knowledge that is the greatest problem these days. The other subjects are vying for brain space and I think we need to stake out patch in the right hemisphere and frontal lobe with a big picture.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. Check out James’ blog. His pictures are much better than mine. 


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