Sunday, 14 February 2021

Plugging in the gaps in Literature - pulling a thread and seeing what you find

Teaching literature texts is both a joy and a problem sometimes. Deciding what to focus on and what not to focus on is fraught with difficulties. There is never really enough time to do texts justice. Most English teachers would love to do A-level style teaching with the GCSE texts. A slow, methodical read where teacher and students unpick the subtleties of a text. We all want to teach the text well and we are all trying to work on how to do that.

The latest lockdown has highlighted this even more to me. We now have a situation where we are studying texts, yet we can’t guarantee if the student is listening to our lesson or not. Knowledge, that we felt safe to assume was imparted to the whole class before, is now hazy and vague. Of course, knowledge is like a box of kittens. Several of the things jump out and disappear as soon as you turn your back. You have to keep finding them and putting them back in the box.  Don’t ask me why I am putting kittens in boxes. A new lockdown hobby. That and trying the different brands of peanut butter available.

One of the problem with literature texts is 'whole text knowledge'. Students are usually good on the plot of the story and they are usually good on a few key moments. And,they are probably really good on that one technique the writer uses, which you keep banging on about. But, their knowledge of the whole text is weak. I’d be bold to say that we don’t do enough to work on that whole text knowledge. How do I know that? Well, look at how students write about other parts of the text. They might be good at analysing a quotation, but their development and links to the rest  of the text tend to be limited to plot points. Dickens also show us this in Stave 2. We also see it when X does Y.

Literature essays are about formulating an argument, yet lots of analysis I see are not forming an argument. It is 'add fancy word here', 'crowbar obscure historical fact there' and 'squeeze a dollop of critical theory here'. When I explore the strongest Literature responses in our exam results, none of the things above are evident. In fact, they are absent. They, instead, formulate a strong argument. A case with reasoned thinking. A case with explored evidence.

A good student will form an argument that is able to deal with the big ideas across a text and  narrow it to precise evidence and specific points, linking them together. Reasoning and rationalising points are things that I think we have to put at the foreground of thinking in the classroom. That’s why I think we need more work on this whole text knowledge. Once a student has a better concept of the whole and the components that make up the whole, then they can make a detailed and reasoned argument.

Take this skeleton for a paragraph.

Dickens presents Tiny Tim as symbol of how life is fragile and precious.

Dickens uses repetition of the adjective ‘tiny’ to suggest how small, weak and insignificant the character is.

Dickens teaches us that we should care for the children because they represent the future.

More recently,  I have started using the words 'strand' and 'threads'. Where else to we see this idea? Where do we see this thread? This, for me, has really helped students. It is about the interconnectivity of things rather than find and search examples. How many essays have we read with the phrase ‘and another example’ repeated numerous times? Students need to look at the relationship between the choices.

Using the example above, we could look at the thread ‘how small, weak and insignificant the character is’. Where else to we see that idea? This thread?

·       Bob Cratchit has a tiny fire in comparison to Scrooge’s in Stave 1

·       Scrooge as a child was insignificant in the family

·       Ignorance and Want are hidden under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present

Then, this allows us to reason with the idea. Build up an argument. We could use Bob Cratchits fire to reflect that this insignificance is hereditary. We could say that Scrooge’s insignificance as a child is material for Scrooge to emphasis with Tiny Tim in the present. They are both connected by experience. We could say that Tim, Ignorance and Want are all viewed as insignificant by society, but love makes their personality better. All ideas. All threads in the text which allows a student to explore and reason.

The use of a double choice helps to extend the thinking and explore layers of meaning. We don’t need hundreds of references to the text, but two choices helps to extend the thinking. It shows a wider knowledge of the text and the ability to develop an idea. It is the relationship between choices that needs discussion and exploring, rather than ‘here’s another example’. A second choice in a discussion helps build a thread of its own.  That’s why I think we need to help students build up threads in literature texts. Build up connectivity.

I share the following grids with students to help them explore threads and connections across a text. We expect a lot from students when we expect them to remember tiny, micro choices in the text. We want precision from students, but we don’t support them to be precise with evidence. We ask so vague questions that supports vague answers. Can you think of a character that is also weak? Can you think of an event that shows weakness? In the final exam, we can give them vague questions, but we need precision and we need to teach precise things when building up a student’s knowledge of the whole text.  

I give the grids to students at the end of studying a text. We then look at formulating arguments. We look for threads. We make connections between choices. Like the Tube map, we are finding the different routes to an argument. The great thing is that it builds student’s confidence at talking about choices across the text and it helps students form original ideas. Here is a link to the grids.

I don’t make students learn all the choices on the grid – CRAZY stuff – but I do get students to add choice and think of other things to include. We are looking at building meaning and exploring how meaning is formed across the whole text. When you look at the high grade students, it is their argument and the precise use of evidence to form that argument that gets them that grade.

We need to help students build their knowledge of the whole text and all to often we rely on plot summaries. Let’s give them the tools to see the whole text as a whole and not just a tension graph. 

A novel or play is a rich tapestry. Let’s show them that richness and let’s help them pick at a thread and pull it.

Thanks for reading,


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