Sunday, 17 January 2021

A question of structure – cohesion

Things are strange are a bit strange at the moment and, if I am honest, I have struggled to blog. There’s just so much going on and to do. Thankfully, a lesson this week gave me some inspiration to write a blog. A lesson on writing non-fiction.

I find non-fiction writing lessons one of the most rewarding things to teach. I admit it has taken me years to get to this point. Creative writing is generally perceived as being fun, wacky uncle who will play games with you yet non-fiction is that boring aunty that nobody likes and smells of cigarettes.  And if we are honest, our language surrounding the marking of non-fiction is pretty limited. We can gush over a story and advise students so much when it comes to story writing. You could this. You might consider that. When it comes to non-fiction we are often limited in our comments. Add some statistics. Add a counterargument. Add something. Yawn. Do you want to write a story instead?

I think non-fiction is incredibly important for developing a voice and that’s what is neglected when we focus on creative writing too much. We neglect the ability to construct and expand an idea. Over the years, I have taught in various contexts and non-fiction writing is always served poorly. You’ll see a detailed SOW on creative writing but you see that non-fiction is paid lip service and that’s it. This is all surprising when majority of writing in English is present an idea and developing it. Look at your literature essays. Look at your exam question responses. If we look at the whole GCSEs, you’ll see one piece of it is creative writing. The rest - 75% - is non-fiction writing of some kind. Does anybody’s curriculum have 75% non-fiction writing?   

Don’t get me wrong: I love stories. I love reading them. I love listening to them. I love making them. Yet, does our obsession on narrative writing impact on the wider picture? Does it impact on the ability to create an authentic voice? Are we really helping students to communicate with the world if we focus solely on story telling? Do we use a story to ask someone out? Do we use a story when explaining symptoms of an illness? Do we use a story when taking out insurance? Simply: we don’t.  

We need to help students to communicate effectively and succinctly. We need non-fiction writing to do that. We need to work harder on making them see, hear and form their ‘written’ voice. Stories help us understand the world, but non-fiction helps them interact with it.

Anyway, this week I was looking at Q5 on the AQA exam paper with Year 11. We looked at questions and how to use a rhetorical question. That simple thing which isn’t explored enough. We don’t explore its use when communicating ideas. How can you use a rhetorical question effectively? Well, funny you should ask that, because I think rhetorical questions can be used structurally. And we need to teach students how to use them and how they support their ability to voice an idea.

[1] Question at the beginning

A question at the start of a paragraph helps to structure the rest of a paragraph. We then default to answering the question automatically. Lots of students start their paragraph with a statement, which can easily be transformed into a question. The problem with starting with a statement is that by default you carry on stating things after a statement. Something students often do. That’s easily resolved. Turn that first statement into a question. I think sport is being ruined by corruption. How much is sport ruined by corruption? Teach students to turn that statement into a question.

Why should we all wear a mask? We all wear shoes. We wear shoes to ensure that our feet are protected from stones and sharp things, when we walk around. Masks are just like shoes. They protect you from the virus, and, just like shoes, you can take them off when you get home. A virus that can cause great harm if caught.   We have lots of things around us to protect us and a mask is just one more.


[2] Question in the middle

A question in the middle of a paragraph is a game changer. It twists the argument. It turns it around to where you want to go. It shifts the mood or tone around. One problem students have is tone. They write whole paragraphs in the same tone – all the time. A question in the middle of a paragraph helps to inject a tonal shift. Quite easily.


Doris loves animals. She especially loves cats. Terry is her favourite cat and, as an eighty-year-old, there’s nothing more enjoyable than snuggling up to Terry on the sofa and watching her favourite soap. Do think her twenty-year-old grandson thinks of her when he refuses to wear a mask in public? He, like others, is blind and unaware to the risk and danger he is bringing to Doris. His stubbornness and carelessness is the thing that could kill her.  


[3] Question at the end

A question at the end of a paragraph has a lot of functions. Firstly, it can help summarise the argument. Secondly, it can actually help with structuring and paragraphing. Lots of students struggle to build cohesion across a text. They fail to link ideas across the text or develop one thread in a paragraph into another. There writing tends to be a list of ideas. A question at the end of paragraph helps students to link their paragraphs together. A question at the end could be answered in the next paragraph. It is only natural that you should answer it.


A mask is a flimsy piece of material. A barrier between a person and a deadly virus. A way that we can prevent and contain this terrible thing. So, why would someone put their own needs above the needs of those around them?


I am sorry for all the emphasis on masks and somewhat silly paragraphs. What you can see, however, is that this focus on tiny detail like this can have an impact on meaning and development of an idea? Looking at questions, and where to put a questions, has an impact on the way students structure and form ideas. We are helping them to shape and form ideas, knowing when to use and when not to use a question. That way we avoid spurious statistics and facts which do nothing to the argument.


Thanks for reading,


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