Sunday, 25 October 2020

What a teacher wants, what a writer needs

Like others, I have been working on getting students to balance ideas, discussion on language choices and the writer’s message or intent. For some, this comes easily and for others no so. The one thing that is quite elusive, for most, is the writer’s intent.  

A lot of the time, when we are talking about intent, we use stock statements. Dickens was challenging the status quo. Shakespeare is highlighting the different types if love. Those statements are handy and helpful in terms of joining the dots. But, I find the jump to the end point and conclusion. We force feed students these writer’s messages. We teach texts around these messages. We even punctuate lessons with socialism and equality when discussing texts like ‘An Inspector Calls’. We force this end point in terms of discussing the writer’s intent. We even add words around this to help jumpstart the process. The writer is either challenging, highlighting, questioning, or some other suitable verb, the idea.  We might even give them little titbits like ‘inequality’, ‘differences’ or ‘the relationship between x and y’ to help them form sentences that sound impressive but at the same time they are hollow and meaningless.

Student become obsessed with this kind of benign writer’s intent statements. They pepper their writing with them and rarely move beyond the superficial level of understanding. We see this when they struggled with the GCSE English Language papers. Exam papers where the focus is clearly on the intent. Yes, it does look at meaning and choices, but largely it is about the writer’s intent. Paper 2 has even got the word ‘perspectives’ in its title. Umm. That just means the writer’s intent. It’s just dressed up in a fancy word.  This where the problem lies. Because we have a simplistic approach to intent with literature, we then have this process fed across other elements. That’s why we get crazy statements from students when they look at the texts. The writer presents the boat in the way he does because he wants to challenge the inequality in society and the patriarchal superiority of the existing social structures. It is a boat. A thing that sits in the water. A big boaty thing. The poor thing just wants to be a boat. And play like the other boats in the wild.

The problem is counterfeit intellectualism. We saw something similar with wow words and vocabulary. They were the trappings of good writing, but that’s all they were…trappings. The idea that showing a few clever words and ideas in a paragraph is the instant key to successful writing. Added to this is the notion that there’s a set structure or even a check list that all Grade 9 students to is damaging to what we teach and how we teach it. We see this counterfeit intellectualism played again and again in English and I think it is largely damaging. Look at the obscure use of terminology in analysis. Some, if we are honest, that didn’t even appear in any of our undergraduate courses. There is a good argument for teaching some of these techniques, but it is the way that they are used that I have a problem with. I’d rather have a student who can tell me a detailed why Shakespeare did something rather than the student who can fit catharsis, hamartia, hubris, anagnorisis and peripeteia in one sentence and spell it correctly. For me it is the depth of understanding and I think we have to challenge this counterfeit intellectualism for what it is. Counterfeit intellectualism is about quick fixes, easy answers, quickly recalled things and shiny bauble things that looks good to a complete stranger. The more the better with counterfeit intellectualism.

This counterfeit intellectualism has a drawback. Engagement. We are not teaching students to engage with a writer’s ideas. We are not allowing that level of depth to grow naturally and in an explorative way. Students need to engage with texts on a number of levels and even more importantly on a personal level. I don’t think the new (can I still call them new?) GCSE have created the situation, but I think people have created this situation around the new GCSE. They’ve created elements of counterfeit intellectualism around what they perceive the examiner wants to see.

A really good answer sings in the ears of a teacher or examiner. There is a level of subtly and depth that you cannot mimic, copy or even bottle up. The melody comes from years of teaching and not just a simple ingredient added to the mix.  

Right, back to the writer’s intent. We have over complicated the writer’s intent to such an extend it is hard for students to engage in texts. That’s why this term I have, in my COVID regulation lessons, been focusing on building and securing my Year 10s knowledge and skills with poetry. Two simple questions have really helped and supported students when looking at the texts:

What does the writer want?

What does the writer need the reader to think / feel /question?  

They are rubbish questions, Chris! My ferret can produce much better questions than that when it sits on my laptop and does a dance blindfolded whilst listening to the Vengaboys!

In fact, I be bold to say that technical students only need the words ‘want’ and ‘need’. Why?

‘Want’ is a pure and simple way of addressing the writer’s purpose. It is a way of putting it simply to the students. What does the writer want? Dickens wants the poor and rich to work together.

‘Need’ is a something that students get easily. If you want something, you need something else to happen for this to occur. Dickens wants the poor and rich to work together so he needs the reader to understand that world where the rich and poor work together is much better than a world with them working against each other.

‘Need’ can incorporate feelings or thoughts or even questions. Dickens wants the public to understand the difficulties the poor face so he needs them to care for Oliver Twist and feel genuine concern for his plight.

I have been using ‘want’ and ‘need’ with my Year 10s and it has made a marked difference in how they explain poetry. Instead of trying to recall what the bloke at the front of the class, they are now forming more of their own ideas about the texts. They are talking about what Tennyson wants and want he needs the reader to think or feel. They have a much better understanding of the writer than they have done before. Plus, they are writing much better about it by just using the words ‘want’ and ‘need’. The interrogation of the want and needs allows for the depth, but they have a way in to exploring the writer’s intent without the need of those silly triplets (to argue, to advise, blah, blah) or prepared comments from the statement bank.

If we can get students to think about the want and needs in literature texts, then when it comes to non-fiction and boats they can discuss the writer’s purpose easily. They can say the writer presents the boat in the way because he wants to show how prepared they were as he needs the reader to understand they were delusional and overly confident.  The same applies to Paper 1 and the creative writer. The writer starts the opening this way because she wants… and so she needs the reader to feel…

So, let’s work on depth in English by working on how students interact with texts. Let’s make them interact with them. Let’s make them connect with them. After all, we all have wants and needs. Seeing a text from a want and a need perspective, makes the texts relatable. Students have wants and needs too. Those wants and needs unite us.

Thanks for reading,



  1. Great article, but can you see the paradoxes that arise with language. We clearly fall in the same traps we teaching English. What's the real difference between purpose and want/needs?

    1. Thank you. The purpose is about what the writer wants. Their reason for doing things. In an attempt to get students we have provided the wrong kind of meta language. A writer, when writing, doesn’t think about whether they are persuading or advising. Instead, they think about what they want to achieve and how it links to the reader.

  2. I love these points, as I have felt similarly about author's intent in the past! (Though, I do simultaneously value teaching students the author's context in which they are writing from and for). I wonder if you have ever thought about taking this a step further, and avoiding these texts that have formulaic understandings simply because of their reputation (for example, replacing a Shakespeare text with a lesser-known, but similar, tale).

  3. This was FANTASTIC. Thank you for sharing this high-level knowledge and experience. . I will probably watch this blog several times to understand the topic of english grammar basics .Thanks for the article. well done and i learnt a lot from it.


  4. Apna Time Bhi Aayega online is indian darama which is very popular in india and neighbouring countries like Bangldesh Sirilanka and pakistan

    Apna Time Bhi Aayega online

  5. This post is so awesome! It certainly seems as though a lot of the struggles students have is understanding what is being asked of them in concrete terms. I appreciate this shift: it would help students get closer to speaking and understanding discipline-specific language, which will help them in school and beyond.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.