Mr Benn and the Anatomy of Extended Writing

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Me and Mr Benn

I was born in 1975, and the cult children’s animation Mr Benn was part of my childhood. I must have watched re-runs, since the only series made (which consisted of a paltry 13 episodes) was first aired in 1971. For the uninitiated, Mr Benn employed a recurring plot sequence. The bowler-hat-wearing protagonist would leave his home each morning and end up in a strange fancy dress shop, run by an even more mysterious shopkeeper. The nameless proprietor would show Mr Benn the delights of his shop and help him to choose a costume to wear for the rest of the episode. And here’s the rub: whatever outfit Mr Benn shimmied into out back, when he emerged was dressed appropriately for the adventure he was about to embark upon. Whether dressed as a cowboy, a spaceman or a knight, Mr Benn was always prepared.

In some respects Mr Benn’s costume-wearing shenanigans provides an interesting way of thinking about how many of our students approach academic writing. Like Mr Benn, they try and ready themselves for whatever adventure or challenge they are about to meet – they choose the most appropriate writing clothes for the written environment, or genre, they are about to inhabit. Yet perhaps this is where my metaphor breaks down, since what I think we want as teachers is for our students to dig much deeper than the superficiality of mere costume change. Wearing different clothes is essentially pretending, and what we surely wish for our students is for them to write in a more authentic, authoritative and genuinely academic fashion: to understand what it means to write like a historian, a scientist or a geographer.

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A way forward

I wonder if sometimes we might actually contribute towards this ultimately reductive approach to extended writing. I am thinking here of the pervasive use of wall displays of connectives, the over-reliance on crude acronyms for thinking about paragraph structures (PEE, PEED, PEAL, etc) and the use of snazzy laminated placemats for everything from proofreading prompts to convention cues. Whilst I am not entirely against some of these strategies – in the right context and used in the right manner – I am increasingly coming to believe that they are not fundamentally helping our students to write with more sophistication and precision.

What I believe is required is the explicit teaching of the deep structures that underpin academic discourse. Until address this more often and more systematically as part of our daily pedagogy through the interface of the teacher as the main resource in the room, I am not sure that our students’ extended writing will be demonstrably better. What we need to teach lies beneath the disguise of clothing and more within those anatomical structures that cannot be seen. If we get the teaching of these structures right students’ writing really will be able to meet the demands of writing with clarity and force.

The Anatomy of Extended Writing

Over the past few months I have attempted to provide the teachers in my school with a sense of what these structures might look like. This work has grown into what I am calling the Anatomy of Extended Writing. Drawing upon a wide range of different source material, and spending a disproportionate amount of my summer break pouring over a computer screen, I have devised an initial set of 18 modes of extended writing – functions or purposes of writing that I think are commonly used across subjects, such as Making Points, Evaluating the Significance of Data, Providing Definitions and Summarising Findings.

Within each of these modes I have identified a further set of specific sentence structures for each different facet of the overall function. So this might mean that for Reporting Results and Findings (coded 13.0), I have ‘commenting on specific visual data’ (coded 13.1), and ‘referring to the results from surveys’ (coded 13.6). As you can see, both the overarching mode and the specific sentence forms beneath them are numbered: the main modes are numbered 1-18, with each specific sentence type appended using a decimal point. I think this codification is crucial for helping to create a shared understanding of the different sentence functions. Over time, I see this coding system enabling teachers within and across departments to identify, teach and practise specific sentence constructions.

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Producing an Exemplar

The first step in turning these sentence forms into something tangible is for subjects to identify the specific genres they are trying to teach – the kinds of writing they are gearing their students towards producing. In most cases, there will only be one or two over-arching academic genres that operate within a discipline. In English Literature, I have identified three prevalent genres: the comparative study, the unseen analysis or appreciation and the critical opinion essay, where students have to engage in some form of opinion about a character, theme or relationship. There may well be others, but in the short term, these are going to be the ones for which we develop specific anatomies.

From the identification of genres, the next stage is to draw upon the sentence structures contained within each of the modes, and use them to produce exemplar writing – an excellent piece of work that provides teachers and students with a template for success within that academic genre. The important thing to remember here is that this exemplar piece of writing should be devised with the highest point at which the department teaches in mind. This model will effectively become the ultimate expression of excellence which can then, assuming that A level is the highest point the subject teaches, be worked backwards to produce exemplification of high standards at GCSE and Key Stage Three.

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Codifying Sentence Structures

These exemplar pieces of extended academic writing or anatomies will then be coded, through reference to the sentence structures identified in the modes of writing. It is my hope that over time my initial list of 18 functions will grow and that within these functions additional coded constructions can be established, effectively creating a continual on-going database. The point of codification is twofold. to establish a consistency of approach towards teaching extended writing both within departments and across subjects and key stages. It has always struck me as perverse that with one teacher a student learns to structure their writing using a hamburger metaphor, another with some derivation of PEE and another with something else entirely.

This term I have spent a bit of time teaching my A level students some of these sentence forms. For instance, we are currently preparing for a 3,000 word comparative essay, and to help better structure my students’ writing I have been relentlessly getting them to practise writing the opening manoeuvres of a paragraph. In the past I have been rather too guilty of focusing on deconstructing whole texts, when mine and my students’ time would probably have been better served in honing specific sentence forms. In many respects, this approach to developing extended writing through focusing on sentence construction is not a million miles away from Doug Lemov’s Golden Sentence, David Didau’s Slow Writing and some of the excellent work produced by the likes of Andy Tharby and Chris Curtis.

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‘One True Sentence’

It seems that developing students’ understanding of the sentence is currently where a number of educators are converging, which to me makes perfect sense. Two of my favourite writers of the Twentieth Century are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: both writing around the same time and addressing similar Modernist concerns. Yet to read their writing you may well think they were poles apart – the one writes with an ornate flamboyance and overly decorative style, whilst the other strips everything back in the hope of finding the ‘one true sentence.’ Beneath this superficial difference seems to me a more striking similarity. Both writers were obsessed with the sentence: in finding out the optimum construction for conveying meaning or truth. Where Fitzgerald believed in more, Fitzgerald strove for less.

I am not suggesting that the Anatomies of Extended Writing are about finding the ‘one true sentence’. What I am suggesting is that the sentence is the unit of language we should pursue with our students to help them better understand and produce the real thing, rather than having to pretend through dressing up!

‘After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ F. Scott. Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Further Resources:

Here is a link to my Teaching and Learning Presentation

Here is a link to a PDF version of The Anatomy of Extended Writing

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Language Across the Curriculum part II: what are the priorities?

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In my last blog I tried to flesh out some of the reasons for many teachers’ lack of confidence with all things language – the ‘elephant in the room’ identified by @englishlulu here: http://wp.me/p2BKE4-3Q. I then tried to suggest how a persuasive argument could be constructed that encourages teachers and support staff to make a meaningful and sustained contribution to developing pupils’ language skills. Winning this argument is surely the first step in establishing a coherent, long-lasting approach to the teaching of language across the curriculum.

This post offers some further thoughts on how to train teachers once they are willing, and set up the culture and interactions necessary to realise a coherent longer term vision. I will briefly explain some of the things that I have tried to implement (in this regard) in my previous role as Head of English, and explore some of the ideas and approaches that I intend to implement this coming year. This blog is essentially the sum of my present thinking, and as much as my writing is really about helping me to better marshal my thoughts, I hope it also offers you a useful articulation of what a successful language across the curriculum policy might look like.

What is abundantly clear is the sheer scale of the task of getting all classroom teachers and supporting adults to take responsibility for developing pupils’ language, which is perhaps why so many schools have tried and failed with such initiatives in the past. It can become a running joke how every 2-3 years a school introduces a new cross curricula language development, usually on the back of an Ofsted inspection and usually to great fanfare to all staff. In 2009 Geoff Barton’s Re-Booting English – a Leading Edge National Programme review document for English teachers and senior teams – offered some sound advice to schools looking to implement a more coherent literacy programme. The advice was to adopt a ‘less is more approach’ and ‘focus relentlessly on the two of three key areas which will make an impact on students’ learning.’ See here: tinyurl.com/k3xx22d

These words seem as true today as they did then: to do a few things really well now, and then build later on. But developing a school culture where every adult takes responsibility for developing pupils’ reading, writing and oracy – willingly and with zeal, not coercion – takes time. Such a vision can be planned for, but any attempt to realise its entirety too soon is overwhelming and probably the reason why so many fall by the wayside, leading to wry smiles and the continuation of the long-running joke. It’s therefore sensible to focus resources and effort on one or two main priorities, depending on the context of the school.

This is certainly not to suggest that plans for language across the curriculum should not be bold and ambitious: they should.  We should aim for a situation where talking about language and its usage is so part of the fabric of pupils’ learning they consider it normal and expect it in their lessons. Pupils should be getting better at their reading in geography, improving their writing in Food Technology and developing their oral skills in Design Technology.

These improvements must be more than just tokenistic language references, one-off lessons or questionable bolted on tasks. This is why I don’t think many of the resources that we as teachers like to generate, such as literacy place mats, colourful classroom writing prompts or lists of key words, are not really the answer. Don’t get me wrong, these resources have their uses – I’ve certainly designed and used many of my own (see below) – but they are ultimately just tools and through their reductive nature can sometimes do more harm than good, particularly in the hands of someone who does not know how to use them properly. The greatest resource is always the teacher.

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Depending on the context of the school, then, the best place to start is probably with developing levels of professional expertise. In the past I’ve tried to make sure my department has the strongest possible subject knowledge and that my English teachers have a shared understanding of how language works and how we will talk about it with our pupils, including the terminology we intend to use in our lessons. Whilst I think it is a mistake to place the responsibility for developing language across the curriculum solely on shoulders of the English department – the idea is really that everyone is a language teacher – it would be misguided not to make some use of those with the greater expertise and experience, at least in the short term.

This experience can be harnessed in a variety of different ways. In her blogpost @englishlulu mentioned how she intends to offer ‘fun, practical and edible’ cake and grammar sessions for teachers. This type of non-threatening training opportunity is great, particularly in conjunction with her other ideas, such as the language for learning tips in the school newsletter. It is important to stress, though, that any approach which places the responsibility for whole school language development on the English department, or still in some schools on the relatively inexperienced KS3 co-coordinator, should only be a short term measure. As long as the English department are seen driving whole school literacy, the more unlikely it will be that every teacher sees language development as being their responsibility. And this is why training sessions for teachers might be best served targeting those teachers in other subjects who have the greatest enthusiasm, willingness and/or expertise, which can then be develop in these sessions and applied in their own departments.

A further consideration when setting up any training is the need to establish a shared language for approaching literacy beforehand. I genuinely believe that one of the problems in schools – even within English departments – is the scattergun manner in which literacy is talked about with students. For example, from the students’ point of view, how helpful is it when one teacher tells them that adjectives are describing words (focusing on their definition) and the next teacher discusses them in terms of their formal properties and their role and function in sentences? It is confusing. Furthermore, the students in the class of the second teacher are getting a much better deal: they are learning about how language truly works in a given context – not some pre-defined definition of an adjective that is often not true in practice.

This goes back to my previous point about literacy place mats and writing tips: what does it really mean to have a laminated piece of card with an instruction to start a sentence with an ‘ed’ word if that student (or teacher) has no idea what type of clause this is referring to, or how it needs to be punctuated? Establishing a shared, common language in advance, which can then perhaps be prompted by these tools, is therefore paramount. In my experience, the tool too often comes first and it is assumed that the prompt will work and not create further issues as a result, such as technical inaccuracy. I have the same concern with the use of some literacy success criteria, such as that which states ‘use a variety of sentences’. Many students’ understanding of this target will be to use some sentences that are short, some that are longer and some that are somewhere in between. This is not genuine language development – unless this explicitly referring back to prior learning and terminology, it’s at best vague and tokenistic, at worse the cause of further problems.

In an ideal world any shared understanding of language would be communicated across the whole school community, so that all teachers, students and their parents understand how language is being talked about and taught in lessons. Obviously, this would means that parents would need to have access to the same grammar training and subsequent supportive resources as the teachers, but in this should not pose too much of a problem. The use of technology could clearly help in this regard, where training sessions could be recorded and made available as a bank of videos over the years.

For what it’s worth, my focus for whole school language development starting this September is pupils’ writing. I would love to take on oracy work and pupils’ reading too, but I recognise the benefits of the ‘less is more approach’ I advocated earlier. If you read my previous blog, you will remember that I extoled the virtues of the important work that Lee Donaghy was doing at his school on a genre-based pedagogy. See here: http://wp.me/p3hZYu-2. This is very much part of my long term thinking, but how I actually tackle the ideas and approaches he raises is probably the stuff of a post later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to properly get to grips with it.