A reflection on some different ways to structure discussion of a text in the classroom. The example is from Key Stage 3, although the principles are applicable to any phase.
The text below is one which we used to read with Key Stage 3 pupils at Parkside Community College, in Cambridge, when teaching about World War 1 poetry and propaganda. It is a personal letter from a soldier to his mother, which was published in the local paper as part of a drive to recruit more volunteers for the army.
Its local relevance made it particularly compelling to the pupils, all of whom knew “Gwydir Street” and the “Great Eastern” railway area, and some of whom lived there.
Of course, as a piece of published propaganda, it relies explicitly on the emotional resonance of these local references, and this is one of the things we would discuss with pupils. We would also look at the language of euphemism and ‘chivalrese’ (“a big fight”, “the mad fools”, “touch us” and so on). We would pick out the language of camaraderie (“pals”, “Cambridge boys”, “Great Eastern boys”, “drink his health in bully soup”), of patriotism (“dear old England”, God save the King!”) and of optimism. We would also investigate how the letter hints at the darker realities of war, encoded in euphemisms and suggested when the tone changes ominously (“…the sights that some of us have seen here.”)
We would then explore how these things operate together rhetorically, to convey political messages. Most interestingly, we would explore how the text has one status as a personal letter and another as a published appeal – the defining role of context.
The letter also lends itself to a discussion of how, as modern readers, we need to fill in contextual knowledge upon which the text depends. Some of this is historical and situational, including an appreciation of the emotional forces acting when so many men were away from home and when the news was so grim. Some cultural references might be looked up (“bully soup”, “French VC”, “Jack Johnsons”) while some more localised details have to be guessed at (“Paget’s nurses”, General French’s “letter.”)
Mining the text
When I first taught this text, many years ago, my approach was quite straightforward. Following a reading of the text (once by me and once by the pupils on their own) I would present the class with five aspects to look at, briefly reminding them of the meaning of each.
- Hints at the reality of war
I would then then ask pupils (probably working in pairs) to make a colour key and work through the text underlining examples of each in different colours. I would then lead a discussion, asking individuals for examples and elaborating on their effects. This is a classic way to organise pupils’ engagement with a text, when there are clear objectives for their learning about language. Pupils scour the text, spotting and collecting given features. Understandings are then drawn out in ‘discussion’ – through explanation, questioning and feedback.
One way in which I know this approach fell down was that the pupil activity – the mining for features – was quite mechanistic. Very often, when pupils are highlighting given features in a text, they are doing too little thinking. It may be useful practice at identifying techniques, but it can be a missed opportunity for intellectual engagement. They might be discussing (with a partner or with themselves) whether something is a particular feature, but they are rarely looking further than that.
What worked much better was first asking all pupils to identify just one instance of each aspect, then fielding one example of each and unpacking that example in some detail, exploring its finer anatomy and its function in the text. This modelling stage makes the pupils’ subsequent feature spotting less one-dimensional. As they then spot further euphemisms, for example, they can be thinking more about how they might have evolved, or about how they operate: whether they deploy an element of humour (“Jack Johnson” was the British nickname for a particularly feared German shell, after the American heavyweight boxing champion) or use mild synonyms (“big fight”, “touch us”) or use obfuscating idiom (“the thick of it”.) These insights (well-formed or incipient, conscious or unconscious) are then brought to the subsequent teacher-led ‘report-back’ stage, when they can be deepened through explanation and questioning.
I still often see this stage missed out in lessons. Pupils launch into an activity like this without enough initial teaching to model the kind of thinking required. I think of this as a sort of ‘pre-loading’ of challenge, priming thought and setting up expectations of intellectual or imaginative engagement. The result is often that pupils are not only thinking deeper but are more invested – more engaged. And, in the subsequent report back and class discussion, the pupils’ contributions are more assured and interesting and the teaching can go further.
My default ‘design’ for this kind of lesson, however, has tended to involve an element of group work, not particularly out of a principled attachment to it, but because of the extra challenges and the efficiencies which it offers.
After the reading and the initial modelling, rather than pupils working through the text finding examples of all the features, each one would be allocated to a different group. In the subsequent discussion, each group would be responsible for reporting their discussion, and explaining their thinking to the rest of the class, with most individuals called upon.
This familiar lesson structure challenges pupils to take more responsibility, socially – by working with each other independently, and intellectually – by having to explore and then explain different aspects of the text. Importantly, however, it also means that there is actually less time spent on independent pupil activity and more time left for teacher-led discussion and for the explicit teaching of ideas.
A variant on this structure leaves out the ‘pre-loading’, modelling stage. Instead, teacher time is given to each group, to model thinking and to inject challenge. This way, there is more sense of each group bringing a specific expertise to the report back and discussion.
Rooting discussion in personal response
This lesson, following any of the structures above, has what might be called a ‘didactic’ design. It pursues clear learning objectives and those are where it starts. ‘We are looking at these things in the text; now look at them for yourself and we will then talk about them more deeply.’
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this; teaching is didactic by definition. It also does not preclude pupils rehearsing their personal responses to a text. In my lessons, this was certainly not bypassed: the initial ‘reading’ stage would usually include a few minutes for pupils to write down or to talk about their immediate reactions – questions, feelings, observations and so on. (I always encourage pupils to be able and prepared – days, weeks or years later – to start a sentence with the words “When I first read this text, I…”)
However, I have found that the most successful reading lessons are often those in which these immediate responses are used not just to energise but actually to trigger or to set the course of a subsequent exploration of the text, in a way that is often more organic and more spontaneous than in the structures above.
With Gunner Webb’s letter, I might ask pupils to underline just one thing that puzzled them, or one thing that they thought was particularly interesting. One pupil might say that they know Gwydir Street and that they walk past number 126 every day. From a discussion of how it feels to read about a familiar place in the past, we would think about how this local reference is important for the letter as propaganda. The pupils would then, in pairs, look for anything else in the letter that is about local people, culture or places and we would talk about each one. This might lead to discussing the importance of camaraderie. Pupils would then look for any more references to this, and so on.
Then a pupil might say they are puzzled by the ‘Jack Johnsons’. We would establish, through inference, that these were probably shells. I would then explain who Jack Johnson was and this was a nickname for a feared German 15cm heavy artillery shell. I would ask why they might call it this and how it makes the shells seem. Arriving quickly at the idea of euphemism, we would think about how this example functions, for soldiers in the trenches and for readers on the ‘home front’. I would then ask pupils to go through the text in pairs, finding any other examples of euphemism. We would then talk about these… and so on.
Another pupil might then suggest that it’s odd that some of the text is deliberately playing down the horrors of war in this way when it also mentions “the sights” that “dear old England” should never see. We would talk about why, as recruiting propaganda, the letter needs to balance the glorying of war with a suggestion of urgency. Again, pupils would then look through the text for other examples of this. And so on.
Of course, this more organic, spontaneous approach does not have the economies of tightly structured group work, nor the didactic certainty of a given list of features to cover. It does present more hazard: how do you know that the ‘right’ things are going to be said and that the objectives are going to be covered?
However, it is usually possible to predict with near-certainly that pupils will bring up what is needed; it is also always possible to steer and suggest, so that the discussion moves in the way the teacher wants. This does require the teacher to be confident and practised. To generate momentum, they do need to create a sense that their questions are genuine ones, at least appearing to require genuine responses, rather than just testing or fishing for specific responses – exploring, rather than steering. (See Asking real questions in the classroom.)
In my experience, lessons such as these are often more rewarding for both the teacher and the pupils. They result in the class having more sense of ‘owning’ the text and their collective reading of it, and so their memories of it are more secure. There is also important modelling going on – of the intellectual process of following a trail of ideas, of the pleasures of exploring and unpacking a text, and of the rooting of ‘academic’ reading in personal response.
‘Underline the most…’
An approach which I use a lot in reading lessons is the one of simply asking pupils to select one thing to underline or circle. This might be what they think is the most important word on a page, or the line they like most in a poem, or the most interesting detail in a text, or the most powerful image in a soliloquy. This extremity of distillation is, in a sense, highly artificial. However, it is a fail-safe way to generate thinking, to fuel discussion and to structure some explicit teaching.
I might first of all ask pupils to share and to discuss their selection with a partner or group, but the real strength of this approach also lies in whole class, teacher-led teaching. Any pupil can be called upon to share their idea. They all have a ready contribution, and as there is no ‘correct’ answer, every pupil’s idea is ‘valid’. The key then is the follow-up questioning. ‘Why did you pick that?’ ‘What do you mean by…?’ ‘Say more about how…’ and so on. Because this was an individual pupil’s personal choice, this follow-up questioning has genuine import. We really do want to know why they made it. So the discussion is already more organic, more interesting, easier to care about. It also has the dynamic of argument: other pupils will have chosen different words, lines, phrases or images, and they can argue for those. Again, although the starting point and the direction of the lesson is less predictable, that is actually its strength. This is reading as a shared exploration rather than as a guided tour.
With a class which is ready to engage in some prolonged, organic discussion, this approach is also a sure-fire way to get to the ‘heart’ of a text, without having to prepare a list of questions or a series of broken-down tasks. Imagine that pupils have been asked to underline the single most important word in the speech below.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Take any word that a pupil might choose (and there will be a range) and imagine where the follow-up questioning might lead. As soon as pupils start justifying how “nothing”, or “time”, or “death”, or tomorrow”, or “candle”, or any other word is the ‘most important’ one, they are having to grapple with the essence of the speech, they are having to ‘relate the part to the whole’ – reading in a very fine-grained way while also thinking about the greater picture.
In this sort of approach, there is also a more guaranteed, immediate personal investment from pupils. I think it is easy to see why with a simple though-experiment. Presented with this speech from Macbeth, which instruction would you prefer: underline the metaphors, or pick out your favourite metaphor and be ready to explain why? Certainly, I’ve found the latter to fuel discussion which is richer and more varied – less predictable but more interesting.
Finding the balance
Designing a teacher-led reading lesson has to be about balancing pupil activity and teaching. It has to be about effectively mixing explanation, modelling, questioning and feedback. It has to be about ensuring that pupils are developing knowledge, including of formal strategies for formulating and articulating insights, but it also has to about ensuring that they are developing as real readers, with a sense of what it means to read, as an individual or social act. The more ‘organic’ the lesson – the more that discussion and teaching is rooted in personal response and in spontaneous exploration – the easier this is. That doesn’t mean avoiding explicit instruction, or devaluing the role of the teacher in steering discussion and guiding understanding; in fact, it requires the explicit modelling of ways of reading and kinds of thinking, which pupils can practise. However, I believe it does mean foregrounding processes of ‘discovery’ and exploration, and rooting that exploration as far as possible in genuine, personal responses.