Developing critical readers: preparing students for GCSE English Language reading papers

Thoughts on how students are taught to write critically about texts in exams

This post was originally an article for NATE‘s Teaching English (Issue 12, Autumn 2016.) It has been edited slightly.

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Preparing for the new English GCSEs has compelled English departments to put their Key Stage 4 curriculum through yet another revision. For many, this has been taken as an opportunity to be creative with the curriculum, to devise fresh practice and to sharpen classroom teaching of knowledge and skills. However, the combination of a short time frame and a highly pressurised environment has pushed some departments towards an anxious, somewhat mechanistic approach to the specifications, with teachers focusing narrowly on the hoops through which students will have to jump.

The questions which students are asked in exams about texts have always been such hoops – very artificial constructs, which require very specific and deliberate forms of response. English teachers have always used three main forms of preparation for these reading hoops.

1 Fundamental preparation: generally becoming an alert, knowledgeable and critical reader; developing a range of skills of response and expression.
2 Contextual preparation: developing the specific thought-structures and skills ultimately required to answer exam questions, but in the context of ‘real’ reading, writing and discussion.
3 Explicit preparation: practising the answering of typical questions, in writing and in talk.

The third kind of preparation, the ‘explicit‘, in which students are rehearsed in the practicalities of meeting the artificial requirements of a particular assessment, is essential for GCSE exam success. However, without the first ‘fundamental preparation’ it will always be weak. And it will also be weak if it comes before and instead of the second kind, in which such thinking and skills are developed in the context of ‘real’ reading and ‘real’ discussion.

Implications for Key Stage 3

Very broadly, the three kinds of preparation above can be seen as a progression through secondary English. Key Stage 3 should really be about securing the first and developing the second in interesting ways. The third can largely wait until Key Stage 4.

1 Fundamental preparation An emphasis on…

  • reading as pleasurable and interesting for itself
  • the discovery, exploring and debating of personal responses
  • imaginative, empathetic and creative responses to texts
  • transformative responses to texts, such as film adaptation
  • journal and free-writing responses
  • creative writing inspired by or in imitation of texts
2 Contextual preparation: Talking about texts

  • Lots of ‘wondering’ when reading texts – rather than closed questions about language and techniques – as a starting point for analytical thinking
  • Discussion of what is or isn’t effective, as a starting point for identifying aspects of form or language, or a writer’s techniques
  • Pushing, in discussion of texts being read, for evidence, reasons and examples, and for clear reference to these
  • Insistence on increasing precision and complexity of spoken response, through follow-up questioning or reference to ‘thought-stems’, for example
  • ‘DARTS’ activities, which unfold aspects of texts through sequencing, cloze, slow-release and so on

Writing analytically about texts

  • Extended, open tasks, which can be edited and redrafted, to develop complexity and precision of expression
  • Analytical responses which take non-exam forms, such as director’s notes, magazine reviews, blog posts, commentaries on creative responses and so on
  • Analytical and critical writing about visual and film texts, as well as written ones.
  • Only using ‘formulae’ such as PEE or PEEL to help students to express what they want to say, not as an end in themselves.
3 Explicit preparation: If students are required to undertake some GCSE-style assessments at Key Stage 3, then they will need to be rehearsed for them, but this should not be at the expense of the more fundamental, more deeply-embedding and more intrinsically motivating approaches above.

The risk, of course, is that even at Key Stage 3 the first and even the second are being increasingly overwhelmed by the third. The tracking of ‘progress’ at Key Stage 3 by proto-GCSE style tests can lead to a damaging, too-early emphasis on the third kind of explicit preparation.

Implications for Key Stage 4

At Key Stage 4, the imperative to prepare students for imminent exams makes Number 3 more of a priority – explicit preparation, for types of question which demand specific forms of answer. However, to me it is disastrous to make this the be-all and end-all of English, especially at the start of Year 10 when students are still very much in need of both other forms of preparation.

Students at all levels of attainment should be rooting their analysis in an ongoing exploration of their personal response to texts of all kinds, which they feel they are reading for their own sake – even for enjoyment; and there is still a place for imaginative, transformative and creative response, for imitative writing and for free journal-type writing.

It is also essential that students continue to develop the necessary skills and thought-structures for exam answers in a contextual way, organically, through skilfully structured and developed discussion of texts; and it is essential that students continue to write open and sustained responses, which they can edit and redraft – not just short, practice answers.

1 Fundamental preparation: A continuing emphasis on…

  • centring discussion on broader questions about texts, rather than just on ‘assessment objectives’
  • reading as pleasurable and interesting for itself
  • the discovery, exploring and debating of personal responses

The retention of some…

  • imaginative, empathetic and creative responses to texts
  • transformative responses to texts, such as film adaptation
  • journal and free-writing responses
  • creative writing inspired by or in imitation of texts
2 Contextual preparation: Talking about texts

  • Integrating preparation for the ‘Reading’ papers into work on the Literature texts, or texts which are related
  • Still lots of ‘wondering’ when reading texts – rather than closed questions about language and techniques – as a starting point for analytical thinking
  • Using discussion of what is or isn’t effective, as a starting point for identifying aspects of form or language, or a writer’s techniques
  • Using a range of ‘DARTS’ activities, which unfold aspects of texts through sequencing, cloze, slow-release and so on

Writing analytically about texts

  • Sustained, open tasks, which can be edited and redrafted, to develop complexity and precision of expression and to ensure challenge at all levels of ability
  • Analytical responses which answer a range of questions about texts – not just those found in the exam papers.
  • Analytical responses which take non-exam forms, such as director’s notes, magazine reviews, blog posts, commentaries on creative responses and so on
3 Explicit preparation: This is the final, pragmatic part of preparation.

 

Implications for a typical, short teaching sequence at Key Stage 4

A typical teaching sequence which jumps straight to the third type of ‘explicit’ preparation might be as follows. The teacher is aiming to prepare students for Paper 1, Section A of the AQA GCSE English Language exam: ‘Explorations in creative reading and writing’.

The class are told that the ‘objective’ is to develop their ability “to identify and explain the writer’s techniques.”

Students are given an extract from the opening of Great Expectations in ‘exam paper’ form, with numbered lines.

They are given no context for the piece, just bare information about the writer and when it was written, as they might have in the exam.

The teacher reads the passage, while the class follow.

Students are then asked to read one section of the text again, and to underline and label any examples they can find of literary devices. To help them, there is a discussion of what these might be – metaphors, alliteration, vivid adjectives, short and long sentences and so on.

After 5 minutes or so, students report back what they have found. The teacher annotates a projected copy of the passage on the board.

With the teacher scribing on the board, the class write a simple paragraph about one of the techniques, scaffolded with sentence stems. (‘The writer uses… For example… The effect of this is to…’)

The teacher then steers the class towards a more sophisticated, economical expression, turning this paragraph into a single sentence with embedded quotations.

With this as a model, the class go on to write their own sentence about one of the other techniques. The teacher gives feedback on these, projecting examples and inviting the class to critique them.

For homework, students write a full ‘answer’ to the question ‘How does the writer use language to describe the place?’

The teacher feeds back on the homework and students have a chance to edit and improve it in a later lesson.

This sequence is pragmatic. It mimics the exam form and foregrounds for students the thinking and skills they need.

There is some exemplary practice, including the use of modelling, feedback and deliberate practice to develop – in a very explicit way – the sophistication of students’ expression. However, in its pragmatism it is also dry and functional. It constructs English as all about answering exam questions, not as about reading real texts.

That’s fine in the immediate run-up to an assessment, but in Year 9 or early in Year 10 too much of this risks suppressing students’ interest and enthusiasm for the subject, or even alienating them. (In years 7 and 8 it is deadly!)

Below is another version of the teaching sequence, still designed to build ‘exam-readiness’ but emphasising personal response and a more ‘real’ encounter with the text. It is slightly more time-consuming, but is likely to generate more engagement and to provide more challenge, including for the highest attaining.

The class are told that the ‘objective’ is to develop their thinking, at a high level, about how writers use language in description; however, the lesson is also “a chance to explore one of the most famous opening passages ever written, and to talk about what we think of it.”

The class are also then given a ‘key learning question’ for the lesson: ‘Why might this passage have become so famous?’

The teacher asks for some guesses about the KLQ. What might mean that a passage from a novel becomes famous? Some ideas are fielded and shelved for later.

The teacher projects an image of a coastal marshland and asks students to imagine themselves into the landscape. They brainstorm words to describe the atmosphere and character of the landscape.

The teacher then gives the text to the class, as copied pages from the novel but with space for annotation, and explains where it is from.

The teacher reads the passage, while the class listen, knowing that they will be asked to write down some immediate reactions and questions.

Student spend a couple of minutes writing down their immediate reactions, as does the teacher. These are then shared briefly, in groups and with the class, and the teachers uses follow-up questioning to draw out some of the students’ thoughts and reactions.

The teacher directs the class back to the KLQ. What might make this passage famous? The idea is raised that the descriptions might be one reason.

Students are asked to read through these bits again, and to underline what they think are the THREE most effective moments of description.

These are then shared briefly in groups.

The teacher asks for some examples and draws out reasons for their effectiveness, using follow-up questioning to push the level of analysis and of evaluative thinking. They annotate a projected copy of the passage on the board, which students do in parallel on their own sheets.

As students mention specific literary devices, these are explored further, with students going back to the text to find others.

There are continual, wondering references back to the KLQ.

Students write about one chosen moment. (This might be scaffolded with sentence stems, such as ‘A particularly effective moment is… because the writer…’)

One or two of these attempts are projected on the board, and the teacher leads the class in editing and improving them, modelling how to increase precision in analysis and elegance of expression.

Students then write a sustained piece for homework: ‘Why do you think the description in the opening of Great Expectations might have become so famous?’

The teacher feeds back on the homework and students have a chance to edit and improve it in a later lesson

This time…

  • A pragmatic, exam-oriented objective is accompanied by an immediate, intellectually-challenging question to consider.
  • The focus on description is anchored to a real question about texts, not just to the imperatives of the exam.
  • A brief pre-reading activity then allows students to enter the ‘territory’ of the text, and engages them imaginatively before they start reading.
  • Students are then allowed, at each stage, to react to the text as real readers. It is emphasised that personal response is the starting point for analytical engagement.
  • Discussion is dynamic and responsive, moving back and forwards between the text and ideas.
  • Students’ writing is framed as a real expression of what they think, not as formulaic or as a routine.
  • While still building ‘exam-readiness’, the subsequent written task is open, presents an original challenge and allows for a more sustained, developed and differentiated response.

 

A longer teaching sequence

In this typical longer sequence, the teacher is aiming to prepare Year 10 students for Paper 2 of the AQA GCSE English Language exam: ‘Writers’ viewpoints and perspectives’.

The class are told that the aim of this unit of work is to practise for Paper 2 of the English Language GCSE, in which they will be assessed on their ability to extract ideas, to compare and to analyse non-fiction texts, and to write from a viewpoint.

The class read a strongly biased newspaper report about computer games and their supposed negative effects on children’s mental health and development.

They also read a piece by a game-creator, espousing the value of computer games.

Students practise summarising key points from the articles.

Through structured discussion, they also identify techniques of persuasion and argument in each. They then practise writing model paragraphs about these and their effects.

The class then read a short but challenging extract from a 19th century piece lamenting the effects of playing chess on young people.

Students identify similarities and differences between the three texts, in terms of viewpoint, approach and use of language. They also discuss which they find most convincing.

They then plan and write a practice exam answer, under test conditions but with scaffolding sentence stems, comparing the texts.

The class then discuss their own views of the topic, and are led through the process of planning their own opinion piece.

They then write this piece under test conditions, as a formal ‘assessment’.

This sequence does allow students to develop and to rehearse key exam skills, but all of the tasks are quite closed, with narrow objectives in mind.

An alternative version of this unit might be as follows.

The class are told that this unit of work is about reading and taking control of a range of texts which they might well encounter in life. It is about a topic that they might be interested in and which affects them.

(It will also help them to prepare for Paper 2 of the English Language GCSE, in which they will be assessed on their ability to extract ideas, to compare and to analyse non-fiction texts, and to write from a viewpoint.)

Using advertising material as a stimulus, the class discuss their views of computer games and of the role of play in their lives.

In small groups, they are assigned imaginary roles (teenager, psychologist, concerned parent, game designer…) and begin to prepare for a role-played debate.

To help them prepare, they read a strongly biased modern newspaper report about computer games and their supposed negative effects on children’s mental health and development and a piece by a game-creator, espousing the value of computer games.

They are supported towards independence in identifying and noting useful and relevant information and points.

They also have access to a range of other texts containing data, opinions and arguments and are encouraged to research further.

In role, they write a summary of their position.

In groups, they use hot-seating to test each other on how prepared they are for the debate.

Following some practice and feedback, the students’ roleplayed debates are recorded as a speaking and listening assessment.

The class then read a short but challenging extract from a 19th century piece lamenting the effects of playing chess on young people.

At this point, students discuss similarities and differences between the three main texts, in terms of viewpoint, approach and use of language. They discuss which they find more convincing and, through structured discussion, they link their responses to their knowledge of persuasive and argumentative techniques.

For homework, they write about which of the texts they find most convincing and why, with scaffolding sentence stems. Following feedback, they have a chance to redraft this, improving the way they express comparisons.

Students then work on their own newspaper opinion piece. (They have the option of staying in role for this.)

This is an extended piece of writing, drafted at home and in class, with continual peer and teacher feedback. Students are able to add to their research. Following more formal formative feedback, the piece is redrafted for publication on a class blog.

This time…

  • The unit is framed as about their development as readers and writers and as about real literacy, not just as part of an exam course.
  • The starting point for the unit is the students’ independence as thinkers and as affected individuals.
  • The students read and digest the texts because they have a reason to (albeit a simulated one.)
  • Students are still developing skills of summary and interpretation but in a contextual way.
  • Openness and extension adds challenge and encourages independence.
  • The development and assessment of speaking and listening is integrated.
  • The identification and explanation of techniques is rooted in evaluative thinking and talk, rather than a checklist.
  • Comparative writing is fuelled by personal response.
  • Editing and redrafting is used to teach and develop writing skills, within a culture of continual critique and improvement.
  • The final written task is open, extended and redrafted, so that students can be challenged at as high a level as possible.

This latter version certainly asks for more curriculum time, requires more preparation and places greater demands on classroom management and on students’ independence; to many departments, it may seem impractical in an already pressurised curriculum. However, it would not be hard to devise a less ambitious version which still achieves what this one does: it integrates speaking and listening, it allows for real challenges and stretch, and it develops a much greater range of skills. Importantly, it refuses to frame the students – still early in the course – only as candidates. They are being real readers, talkers and writers, practising to participate in society and culture, which is what English is meant to be about.

See also: Objectifying English: thoughts on learning objectives and on the way we frame learning in English

6 thoughts on “Developing critical readers: preparing students for GCSE English Language reading papers

Add yours

  1. Very well-observed. My department has used GCSE-style assessment at ks3. I led on it and it was a sensible, rational response to Life After Levels. But your criticisms of that approach are utterly valid, and exactly why we are pruning it back every year (even every term), asking what to assess and why. Good blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m an English teacher in London, and follow your writing with interest. Right now I’m also studying for a MA in English Education and would like to focus my studies on teaching non-fiction in the English classroom. I really like this article, and your ‘alternative’ creative approaches. Could you recommend any further reading that is in a similar vein??

    Like

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