Sunday, 21 February 2021

Why? Why? Why, Delilah, are you inferring?

A question of summary – Question 2 on Paper 2

Over the years I have blogged about the different exam questions on the AQA exam paper, exploring what strategies I use in the classroom. With remote learning, I have really had to really hone my teaching of a question. Clarity has been the big thing when there is just you and a sea of quiet circles on Teams. All that silence has made me review some aspects of Question 2 but it has also made me question  some aspects of how we teach.

My first point in lessons for Question 2 is that the exam board lie. The word ‘summary’ is a complete hoax. The examiner doesn’t want a summary. They want an inference. Summary and inference are two separate things. Tell students to summarise and they will simply reword the texts and put it all in their own words. That’s the last thing the examiners want. That is a paraphrasing. The word summary makes students automatically paraphrase things which is a low-level skill.

Students need to make an inference. They need to form an inference. To help students to understand this, I make it clear that an inference is a conclusion. An idea they have formed that isn’t explicit in the text. I have used a sentence stem of ‘we can infer that X is Y’. It does grate me to use infer as a verb and it makes me feel dirty. But, it does put the emphasis on inferring. I have used an equals symbol to help student to understand that there is a total / conclusion / judgement. Here's an overview of how I teach Question 2. 

Like others, we use two photographs as a starter to help students build up inferences. Initially, students struggle, but I have found it helps to have a human element to the pictures. Give students two pictures of different bedrooms and ask them to make an inference about the person who lives there. This, in the first instance, helps students to make a conclusion. They are so judgemental. Well, aren’t we all. Then, we use the pictures to help see the value of evidence to support a judgement. Using a picture, it helps students to use more than one piece of evidence to support their conclusion. We can infer the person in the house has no taste because they have Crocs on the floor  and ‘Let Loose’ poster on the wall.  The connection between judgements and evidence isn’t one explored enough. That’s why I spend time looking using different bits of evidence. Students need time working on forming inferences and linking them to evidence. Using more than one piece of evidence helps to ensure that the inferences are not spurious. I have used an plus symbol to help students recall what to do this part, linking two pieces of evidence to the conclusion.

Then, we come to the most important thing and the area that I have changed my thoughts and teaching to over the years. Question 2 is very much a question that is used again in other subjects. It is a question that is used in History, Geography, RE and Science. There is a commonality between all these subjects and it is one that, I think, we should make explicit to students. I refer to this stage as rationalising or reasoning. Both words convey the same thing. For years, we use the verb ‘explaining’ and noun ‘explanation’ to convey what we want students. Give reasons. But, the more I teach Question 2 the more I see that there’s something we can all work on together: rationalising a point.

There’s three parts of rationalising. What are the causes? What is the reason it is relevant now? What is the consequence?  Thankfully the excellent ‘The Writing Revolution’ have given us some words to help us develop this rationalising.

Causes – This is because X

Relevance – This relevant now as X

Consequence – This happened so  then X

The before, during and after are all aspects of building up a picture and a judgement. Previously, I have always taught ‘why, why, why’. This worked for a bit but it never really helped students to form a picture of what is really going on in the text. It tended to make students scramble for an idea.  Getting students to think of ‘why why why’ doesn’t get them to see things conceptually.  

Now, if we take the 2017 paper from AQA we can apply some of this thinking to the text. The exam paper ask students to make an summary (lie – an inference) about the activities a child enjoys.

Take this as an example. Again, it has that yukky verb ‘infer’! Sorry.

We can infer that the boy prefers activities which are physical and involve interaction adults.  

What are the reasons that cause the child to be physical in play? What are the causes for a child to want interaction with adults?


·     *  Had a positive response before and wants to repeat it

·      * Early stage of development and cannot talk

·       *Seen parents interact and wants to copy them

What could be a consequences of this? What will this lead to if things don’t change?


·       *Will annoy adults if this happens continuously

·       *Child might start to mimic more of the adults behaviour like speech

·       *Child will explore the other ways to get the same attention as the parents get tired of doing the same thing


Why is this relevant now?


·     * Child is at a stage where he cannot interact fully and lacks the tools to articulate

·      * Child is at a stage where they view attention as positive thing and they crave more of it

·       *Child lacks full independence so want regular contact with adults – wants to be near them


Then, when we have the inference rationalised conceptually you can start pulling things together. Like Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’, you can see the past, present and future all at once and you can build up a strong rationalisation .

 We can infer that the boy prefers activities which are physical and involve interaction adults. [Insert Evidence Here]  Because the child is in the early stages of development, he isn’t able to convey thoughts or ideas directly to the adults. Therefore, the child relies on simple physical interaction with adults. Making noises could be an early form of communication which the child has seen his parents do, so he is mimicking them and interacting in the same way.  This could lead to adults getting tired of this because it is a repetitive process and there is not variety. Or, the child might change the level of interaction as he learns words and is able to use sounds to interact rather than rely on physical interaction.

I think some subjects lead to more focused rationalisation of things. History is clearly focused on the causes and consequences of events and actions. Science and Geography are possibly more like English in they start with a conclusion and work backwards to get this sense of whole understanding. It isn’t enough to ask students to give us a reason. That reason often is something more complex. There’s a bigger picture. Not a simple case of spot the causes. You need to consider the consequences and the causes and the relevance. Past. Present. Future.

We don’t work hard enough, in English, on this rationalising element. We know knowledge is important, but it is actually the linking of knowledge that is key. How that knowledge all fits together. Do we rationalise literature texts or characters enough?

What causes Scrooge to be an ‘oyster’?

·       What is its relevance now to Scrooge?

·       What’s the consequence of him not changing or changing?

Understand the thinking behind this and you understand what Scrooge is about and what is Dickens is doing. You could even go further. There’s character rationalising, but also writer rationalising.

What caused Dickens to present Scrooge as an ‘oyster’?

·       What is the relevance to now for Dickens?

·       What are the consequences for Dickens writing this?

There’s even rationalising the reader's thoughts and feelings. 

What causes the reader to like Scrooge? 

What is it important they Scrooge at this moment? 

What would be the consequence of liking Scrooge? 

Of course, this way lies madness if we give students all these question all the time and if we give the sentence structures. It is about the connecting of ideas. Tethering what they know to the past, present and future. The relational connections with a choice. 

We’ve all read essays by students who have just dumped contextual information into an essay. Why do they do that? They do it because they know it is important and the examiner wants to see it. Maybe, what they need to do instead is see how that contextual information links to the past, present and future. How is it tethered to things? The best students tether disparate things together seamlessly. The others struggle. We attempt to give them structures for writing paragraphs, but maybe we need to give them conceptual structures for exploration rather than simple sentence structures to work with.

Simply, we need to get students to think. Not to think of why all the time, but think conceptually how things link together. The causes. What caused Dickens to present Tiny Tim as disabled? The consequences. What would be the consequence of Dickens’ readership identifying with Scrooge? Relevance in the now. What was relevance at that moment in time for Dickens? Yes, some of the knowledge might need to be researched, but most times students can come up with an idea. A thought.

Thanks for reading and if you’d like to read some other blogs on answer the AQA exam questions then have a look at these blogs.

Exam Structure Strips 

Paper 1 Overview

Paper 1 Overview Developing Meaning

Paper 1 Question 2 Spotting Techniques

Paper 1 Question 3 and 4

Paper 1 Question 3

Paper 1 Question 3

Paper 1 Question 5 Structure

Paper 1 Question 5 Writing Style

Paper 1 Question 5 Writing Hacks

Paper 1 Question 5 Building Up Character

Paper 1 Question 5 Planning

Paper 2 Overview

Paper 2 Question 5 Structure

Paper 2 Question 5 Writing Style

Paper 2 Question 5 Writing Hacks

Paper 2 Question 5 - Cohesion

Paper 2 Question 5 Planning


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