Welcome to my attempt to archive and share some experiences at making learning more visible in my classroom

Monday, 30 September 2013

Language for learning

Increasingly I am finding that I am planning lessons to improve my student's use of appropriate, academic, carefully chosen language in their writing.  A major part of learning to be an effective historian (or learner), is to learn to effectively communicate your ideas on complex topics. For years I have tinkered about with strategies and templates, writing frames and prompts.  Many of these have been useful and worked in the sense that they enable students to write with a slight degree of refinement but usually only for that particular task and not beyond that.  I want to begin to build a clear approach in order that my students begin to apply strategies for improving their writing in the longer term.

Of course, I have students read again what they have written themselves, redraft and peer assess.  I often show students examples of quality work and we use this to analyse the phrases, vocabulary, connectives and style of writing to create quality success criteria.   But, more often than not, this is only skims the surface.  I have found it more challenging to get students to look at their own work in such an intense way. It wasn't till last week that I began to see that by using a more simplistic approach students could begin to see the complexity of what they were trying to achieve in their writing.

The approach is simple:  I asked students to count certain words that they had written and award themselves 1 or 2 points every time they used that word or phrase.  This simple strategy did quite a few things at once:
  1. Identified vocabulary required for the task
  2. Allowed students to critically analyse their work
  3. Initiated a whole host of discussion about the use of certain words and phrases and how best to explain an idea (something that I have only ever managed to engineer with a clear pre-planned intention)
  4. Reduced the need for me to "mark" students work in the normal way I would.
This episode began when I wanted students to respond to the comments I would be leaving on their work from a previous lesson.  During the previous lesson I had asked them, as part of an ongoing attempt to focus on their level of confidence, to choose a coloured piece of paper to write their initial answer to the question: "What was the most important cause of the economic boom in America in the 1920s?"  Selecting pinky/ red paper meant they weren't feeling confident (this helped me go to those students during the task).  Selecting the beige / yellow colour indicated increasing confidence and so on through green and upto blue which we labelled as "Shoot me now, I can write this piece standing on my head".  One person selected blue.

To complete the task students needed confidence in what to write (the reasoning behind the different causes and the factual knowledge required) and they also needed some confidence in how to write it (the format, style and conventions of that particular piece of writing).  In order to build understanding of "what" to write we had spent the lesson examining the factual knowledge used to answer the question, discussing different approaches and breaking down the reasoning behind it.  Students had used a diamond nine activity to help them frame their thinking. In terms of the "how" to write part of the task we used our classroom talk and discussion to draw out the phrasing used by students to explain their point of view, which included some examples of tentative language ("probably the most important reasons was....", "I would have thought that...." and "it was unlikely that...").  We discussed the use of these phrases in talk and how they might be phrased in written response.  This lead us to a particular reminder about the use of the third person, past tense in historical writing:  no such thing as "I think...."**.  We also used our connectives mat to help identify examples of connectives that we could use to help frame our responses.

Students completed their written response and I took them in to look at before the next lesson.  I spread out the responses on a table to look at the similarities between students who had selected the same colour piece of paper.   The variation between responses was immediately obvious.  But also the similarities in quality answers were leaping off the page - repeated use of key vocabulary, certain words which signalled that pupils were actively explaining and the use of abstract concepts in the most confident of explanations.

I began to gather together all the words or language markers which set apart the quality responses and formed them into some categories which eventually looked like this:

Next lesson I showed students the chart of words above, 1 column at a time, and they awarded themselves 1 point for each time they used the words in the top half of the chart - specific language which has a function in the explanation.  They had to knock off a point each time they used a word from the bottom half of the chart as this was too general and did not form part of the academic code we were seeking.  We discussed the reasoning behind this as we moved across the chart.  Occasionally we would stop and I would ask certain pupils to read from their responses, for example James who had written an interesting example of how a sequence of causes helps build up a causal explanation - he used the phrase, "This meant that...." 3 times in his response.

We also discussed why the "analysing" phrases and the "abstract" ideas got 2 points each.  This was a chance to emphasise the need to compare and contrast the level of importance of factors as an important feature of the writing.  Moreover, most of the students could see immediately see that trying to explain how abstractions like "laissez faire" attitudes from the republican government were harder to explain than the concrete effect of the First World War and therefore were rewarded more highly.

When the exercise was complete the students had a clear idea of the "words" they were missing from their explanations and we set about having another go at the writing, now with a bit more clarity on "how" to write. I further drew out what we were seeking by having a closer look at one example of writing that had many good features, but also some room for improvement.

None of this is revolutionary.   The exercise was useful in getting the students to examine critically their writing in a quick, sharp way.  But in fact, what I have just described is pretty poor practice because if I had provided adequate scaffold for the writing in the first place and modelled good examples first, then I probably would have drawn up that list of words with the students during the modelling.  What's more, they may not have made the mistakes they did.  But that is exactly my point - I don't yet have an ingrained approach to teaching the academic style of writing I want my students to do.  I'm beginning to see the real reason why Geoff Barton told us in an excellent literacy training event last October, "Don't call it literacy".

So what are my next steps?   I'm writing some materials to look at causal language with my classes more deeply.  More importantly, last night I read this excellent blog post by Lee Donaghy on the use of genre pedagogy and David Didau's series of posts which follows up on this fascinating approach which essentially put together all those fragments of teaching writing in your own genre and gives it total coherence.

[**By the way, if your students find it difficult to ditch this phrase in your history lesson because they are encouraged to use it elsewhere then don't get them to ditch it straight away.  Students who write "I think it was Lee Harvey Oswald who shot JFK from the book depository window...." often find it hard to begin this sentence without "I think..."  Just get them to put a line through "I think" when they finish the sentence.  They soon begin to see how the tone changes]

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