Sunday, 6 November 2016

Defragmenting memories

This week I had a look at the some materials released for the new GCSE exams. And, it raised an interesting point, about the use of quotes. No spoilers here but there was one example that featured quotes. The student in question used two one word quotes repeatedly in their answer and achieved a high mark. This got me thinking…
Teachers are looking at how to best prepare out students for the future exams. We know that success, for our students, is dependent on what information they can retain and recall. The new exams are incredibly dependent on knowledge and retained information. For years, I have attended exam specification meetings to be told terminology isn’t necessary. Therefore, most of my teaching has focused on practising and practising skills in preparation for the exams. Now, I am focused on making sure students know key terms, key contextual facts, key quotes and key ideas relating to the texts studied. All this has come to a head as we prepare the Year 11s for their mocks in December.

Across the school there is a lot of knowledge students need to retain for different subjects. As we know, students will prioritise and subjects like Science and History tend to take precedent in the knowledge stakes, because they are seen as subjects by my students as having the most content to learn. Students assume in English that they are competent because they can read and write, but in other subjects confidence and security is based on knowledge. So, how to we get students to see knowledge as an important factor in English?
We have started this year a regular knowledge test of key basic concepts relating to literary devices and grammar terms. Each term students are tested on that core knowledge. However, how do we approach quotes?
This week I am going to try to different focus on quote learning. I am going to teach students words instead of full quotes. There’s a simple reason for this. How do you decide and whittle down a play to twenty or so quotes? You could argue that a student should know everything, but realistically there is only so much a student can learn. Now, I used to love defragmenting my old computer. It was a pretty slow process and every so often I would have to defragment the hard drive to speed things up, which was activated with a simple click of a button. After clicking the button, the computer would rearrange files and delete old and used stuff; it tidied things up. In my mind, it placed files in the crooks and crannies on the computer. It found space and filled the gaps in the memory. A small file would fit in this small gap here. A large file would fit in this gap here. And here’s the rub: do we need to clever about knowledge?  Are we helping students to fragment their knowledge? Treating each piece of knowledge as a colossal titan causes conflict. There’s only so much a brain can take. Not every Greek god lived on Mount Olympus.
By helping students, to learn key words, I am, in theory, helping them to retain more in an easier way. My memory is terrible. To think, I always wanted to be an actor. I always struggled to learn lines and, during some plays, I adlibbed a lot. But, one things I did when I adlibbed or paraphrased was latch on to a key word or phrase. I then built my line around it. If we provide students with the words, then they can build the thinking around the word. After all, one word is a quote. Why spend time learning those extra words in a long quote when you can just use one word?

Take these words used to describe Juliet:

shrine                  saint                      ripe                        jewel                     sun                         light                                                        

In truth, we have six separate quotes in a line. The same amount of words as one standard quote. But, here we have several more possibilities for ideas than we would have with that one quote. Here’s some possible ideas for their use in an essay:

The father’s view of his daughter – ‘ripe’

Romeo’s view of Juliet – ‘saint’, ‘jewel’ and ‘light’

Romeo’s consistent view of Juliet in the play – always refers to light

Romeo’s view that he isn’t worthy of her – ‘shrine’ and ‘saint’

The theme of fate and the inevitability and Juliet’s will die - ‘sun’  

This way students can have more quotes and a wider breadth of the whole play. They key thing is getting students to recall when and where the quote is used. They must know who and what. Then, students can easily make links across the whole play with these short quotes. They can say that ‘star-crossed lovers’ links to Romeo’s reference to the ‘sun’ when describing Juliet in the balcony scene and that links ‘light’ used to describe her in the tomb at the end of the play.  The three simple quotes link three different parts of the text.
Surely, if we approach other aspects of the text in the same way, then we could have fifty words. Fifty different quotes from different parts of the text. A network of ideas and points of reference. For example: Romeo is a described as a ‘rose’ by Juliet and interestingly her father refers to her as a ‘ripe’ when describing her to Paris. Those fifty words could sit alongside some bigger quotes like the whole prologue, but do you know what? Those fifty words can easily sit behind other knowledge and fill the gaps. Those fifty words can be used by students so they use quotes effectively and judiciously in their writing. We want students to be making links across the whole text naturally.

Now, it is up to me work on my fifty words. I might up it to one hundred by Easter.

Thanks for reading,


Update - here's a start with the words.


  1. I like this approach - especially for more able students who can re-contextualise the words in their response. I would worry with less able students that they would decontextualise them too much. How do you guard against this without teaching them formulaic responses that might not answer the question?

    1. This is the first time I am doing this approach, so only time will tell. However, this is where planning comes in. The less able students will have more focus on planning. Which words are the best ones to use with this question? It is about helping students see the relevance of the quote.

  2. Great idea. Thinking that I could ask my students to come up with these words - individually - then in pairs, then in groups - so by the time we have a whole class 6 words it will hopefully be everyone's agreed 6. This would be good start and really get them thinking too. Tomorrow's lesson thanks! :)

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