Sunday, 2 September 2018

Precision and patterns thanks to dual coding

I have never been a fan of turning a poem, novel or play into a story board. The results have always been underwhelming and slightly disappointing. We are often led to believe that ‘visualising’ is a key part of reading, yet what is usually ‘visualised’ on paper is nothing like the original text. Not even something that would pass off as a cheap carboot sale copy. Story boards had always been a nice filler for a lesson. From a learning point of view, the teacher learnt who could draw and who couldn’t. The teacher could also work out who read the text and who only read the opening. But, sadly, you didn’t get much else than that. You did, however, get some display material to get somebody off your back.

Last year, I decided to draw and use ‘dual coding’ to cope with the demands of the new exams. To successfully discuss the examined texts, a student needs to really know the text. And, I mean really know the text. Really, really, really know the books. I wanted to see if I could use ‘dual coding’ to address this issue. ‘Dual coding’ is simply using more than one channel to process and recall information. These two channels are often referred to as ‘visual’ and ‘verbal’ channels. Other people can explain it better than me, so I won’t go through it in too much detail. Anyway, I wanted to look at what I could do to support the learning of the texts using visual cues as well as reading the text and so I started drawing. I broke down each of the texts into components and created a pictorial map of the story. See below for an example. Warning: I am not an artist.

My key thinking behind some of the ‘artistic’ choices are:

·         Use of letters to signify the names of character so that students would have a visual cue but they’d have to recall the name.

·         Use of one item of clothing or hair style to signify a difference between characters. Or in some cases a connection between characters.

·         Setting wasn’t important unless it was a change of setting, which I signified by a building.

·         All scenes must be included and all events in some capacity.

·         If the positioning of a character in stage was important, then I’d add some detail to help reinforce this point (balcony)

·         Thoughts were always signified with thought bubble and dialogue with a speech bubble.

·         Where possible, entrances and exits were marked on the map. However, some texts it is too much.

·         Words would be used, but only to a minimum and often one word.

·         Symbols were used rather than words.

Then, I started to use it in my teaching. I scanned my drawing and gave a copy to all students as we worked through ‘Romeo and Juliet’. They had it at the start of the reading of the act so as we read they could follow and link visually to what is going on. It also made retrieval practice easier. Instead of a list of questions at the start of a lesson, I’d put the scan up on a PowerPoint and ask students to tell me what happened at each point. We’d keep going back to the pictures throughout a lesson. I’d get to the point that students could recall events without having to consult their notes. The great thing about this is that it kept the knowledge of the text at the forefront of the student’s thinking and it supported the weaker students.

Initially, I wanted ‘dual coding’ to just make the students know the text better; however, as things progressed, I discovered it did far more than that and it actually supported and developed the understanding of how the texts is structured and written.

[1] Precision

The difference between the top and bottom answers in literature is precision. The best answers use precise evidence to support a point. The use of these story maps allowed students to build up that precision. How many characters do students forget? How many events do students forget to recall? Usually, I make a sheet of the ‘easily forgotten characters and events’ to combat this. Every student remembers the balcony scene but not every student remembers the scene where the Friar tends his plants.  

When mapped out like this, all events are equal. No stone is left unturned. But, as a teacher, I could keep going back to those ‘easily forgotten characters and events’.

[2] Structure

The structure of texts is a funny aspect to cover. We tend to refer to tension graphs and the odd question here to address it. This approach put the structure at the foreground and put it in people’s faces. If you couldn’t see how Act 1 and Act 2 both start with a prologue, then you need to get your eyes checked. It also allowed students to see how the acts where structured and how characters were used in the plot. They’d see how Act 1 starts with Romeo and then ends with Juliet.

How do we show the structure of the story? I found presenting it visually allowed for more meaningful discussions than when I approach structure with a summary of the text. Structure is a visual dimension of a text. It needs to be presented visually. Here the story maps do just that.

[3] Patterns

Another benefit of this approach was the increase chance of finding patterns. When you have the whole text mapped out before you, there is a better chance of seeing threads and patterns rather than when in isolation. One such pattern students discovered was how the character of Juliet and Romeo are introduced. There is a pattern of characters talking about them before they are seen on stage. Another spotted how two characters talking on stage was incredibly common in the play.

[4] Themes

Themes tend to be taught as discrete lessons. This lesson we will explore the theme of conflict. When you have the whole text before you, you can pinpoint the cogs that make the theme. A highlighter is a thing of beauty. Highlight all the things related to the theme of conflict. Students saw how a theme develops and changes across the play. They see how a theme is pushed to the foreground in the opening and then how it is in the background until Act 3.

The new GCSEs could be about anything and we need students to have a more immersive experience of the texts and to really know them.  

[5] Decluttering and links

I have mentioned this before. There is an issue with the number of images we use from different versions of the play or novel, which can confuse things. I found that using my simplistic images generated more relevant discussion of ideas, than photographs of lavish productions. My simple drawing of Juliet on a balcony engaged students to think about the use of positioning on stage. Why is she higher than Romeo? Why is she closer to the stars? There was no obsession of clothes and facial expressions, but serious choices about what Shakespeare would have a control of.

For this year, I have placed all our story maps in the various booklets we use to teach students. They are there for revision, retrieval practice and as an aide memoir. They are going to be the pillars for the teaching of the text. The students are going to really know the text, so they can be precise in their ideas. There has been a reduction of sifting through what students can recall from the text this year. I am not doing so much of the old ‘can you remember….?’ as I used to.

For KS3, I am going to get classes to create their own. I had much fun with a Year 8 class and we, together as a class, created our own story map as we read Macbeth. A visualizer and blank sheet in an exercise book is all you need. The great thing with story mapping live is that students can see how each event connects to the other, or doesn’t as the case may be.

We are endlessly surrounded by stories. Students will probably experience numerous stories in the course of a week. Our frustration centres around students remember the key bits of the story and the less memorable ones. Is there any wonder they forget things when they have watched a film, or followed a soap daily? Another story with another set of characters and easily forgettable characters and events. We don’t want to be teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year from Year 7 onwards, so we need to be thoughtful in how we teach the story. Rereading a text alone doesn’t secure memory. It just uncovers the forgettable stuff.

I was surprised how much discussion my rubbish pictures generated. It shows you how much can be gained from very little. And, not all the discussion was based on whether my attempt to draw a leg on a character was dodgy or possibly phallic.  

Thanks for reading,


I have included some of my drawings. They are not perfect, but they give you sense of what I did with each text. It took me hours – what do you mean you can’t tell?- to do, but I recommend, as with all things, you try to do it yourself. 

Romeo and Juliet 

A Christmas Carol 

An Inspector Calls 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this idea; I will be using it with my classes tomorrow!


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