I have taught an A level class of some kind every year since I was an NQT. I really enjoy the challenge of teaching the older students, and over the years I have been lucky enough to teach some incredible texts – Paradise Lost, Doctor Faustus and Larkin’s poetry are amongst my favourites. The background reading can be daunting, but I have always found that by improving my subject knowledge I have really helped my students to improve their learning.
A level English teaching is not easy, though. One of the main difficulties I’ve found teaching English in three different mixed comprehensives is that a great many students do not have the necessary grounding in literature and often their writing is not controlled enough to handle the demands of higher-level essay writing, even when grades achieved at GCSE would suggest otherwise. Whilst this may not be everyone’s experience, I have seen the result of curriculum narrowing and an imbalanced focus on English language at GCSE.
So, as much as I enjoy teaching A level, to a certain extent this enjoyment is tempered by the sometimes overwhelming demands of not only teaching the syllabus, but also in addressing the issues that remain as a consequence of a superficial emphasis on skill acquisition at GCSE. In my experience, these issues can get exacerbated, or rather perpetuated, by the AS and A2 examination format. Under this format, where year 12 students sit exams sometime in May, there is not really enough time to teach for learning rather than performance, with the result that nothing really changes.
Since September I have been teaching an AS class who are pursuing the linear course. I had arrived at the beginning of term expecting to teach a year 13 class the legacy specification with texts that I know well and have built up considerable resources and subject knowledge. For one reason or another, the class got cut and I found myself at the last minute faced with the prospect of teaching three texts I was not very familiar with and without time the time I would usually set aside to prepare. Despite feeling vulnerable about my lack of subject knowledge, I have greatly enjoyed teaching the new specification and feel liberated by the possibilities that the linear structure affords.
Whilst I am sympathetic to concerns about linearity, more teaching time is available now the burden of preparing for exams in May has gone. Because the AS exams come so early, you are revising and preparing with past exam papers before you know it, sometimes before you have taught all the poems or finished reading the novel. Once you knock out study leave and the exams themselves, only a few weeks of learning remain when students return in June. In those remaining weeks of term, it doesn’t seem to matter how you try and structure the time to make it purposeful – and trust me I have tried everything from AS/A2 transition units to beginning coursework – it rarely seems to amount to much.
Spacing and interleaving
I think by now that most people, particularly those reading this post, know about the benefits of spacing and interleaving. Unfortunately, knowing and doing are often two completely different things, particularly when you don’t have the time or the opportunity to implement the structures you think will make a difference in the classroom. In my experience, putting spacing and interleaving into practice is hard: aside from practical internal and external constraints, as Robert Bjork himself acknowledges, ‘students don’t like it’.
For the last couple of years I have been trying to introduce these desirable difficulties into my classroom, but I think it has only really been since September and with my current year 12 class that I have got close to implementing them in a way that is reasonably true to the ideal. I spoke at a conference earlier in the year about interleaving and a delegate came up to me at the end and said she thought it sounded a good idea and would ‘try out some interleaving later in the week’. Either my explanation was terrible, which is quite possible, or there was a bit of misunderstanding on her part about what implementing interleaving actually entails.
The reason for this disconnect is, I think, quite simple: introducing desirable difficulty into the classroom is actually quite hard and, like all learning, requires a prolonged period of time to understand it conceptually and making it effective in its practical application. I think where I have been more successful with my attempts this year is because I have had the time and the freedom to do so: I have been able to weave between texts and to allow a decent amount of time for forgetting to take place. The table below provides a brief overview of how I have gone about this and divided up my teaching time between Hamlet and Rossetti over recent months.
The testing effect
It is much easier to take advantage of the testing effect as a classroom teacher. Designing frequent low-level tests of quizzes is relatively straightforward and does not really require too much unnecessary time in design or execution. Starting a new syllabus from scratch allows the additional opportunity to build a coherent programme of quizzes and sequence them in such a way they are testing and encoding the learning in a planned and systematic way. With my A level class I am now ordering my quizzes, so that next year I can gather them together in a master resource for students, which will should make my teaching easier and allow students’ to become more independent in their own quizzing and self testing.
At my school we have taken what I think is quite a bold decision by insisting that most students only take three A levels. This, in part, has allowed us to offer an additional hour’s teaching to all subjects. On top of this, and I realise that we are lucky here, we have created an additional assessment hour every cycle. This means that every two weeks, each student completes a one-hour assessment under supervision for each of his or her three subjects. The assessment can take whatever form the department thinks is appropriate, such as a quiz, a set of comprehension questions or an essay. This format was designed to provide departments with the opportunity to assess students’ learning (ok, performance) on a regular basis, but it is also proving to be a fantastic mechanism for regular low stakes assessment.
For me, probably the greatest benefit of the new linear course – with fewer texts studied in greater depth, together with the specific structures put in place by my school – are that it has meant I can teach in such a way that build up my students’ knowledge and understanding of the texts, whilst also addressing their individual and collective weaknesses. With the need to prepare for an exam early next year removed, I now have more time and freedom to build up a web of knowledge around the text, to methodically introduce relevant contextual details, to tackle grammatical misunderstandings one by one and teach analytical skills through extensive modelling and practice. In short, to do things the right way.
I don’t wish to paint my teaching as great or somehow perfect; it is far from it. I have not got everything right and some of my quizzes are more effective than others. Interleaving in the way that I have illustrated above has been a challenge: although I genuinely believe in the efficacy of distributing learning and weaving between units, it stills feels unnatural and requires a courage of conviction. So conditioned are we English teachers to the practice of teaching a text or unit in a term that to break up this dominant structural arrangement can feel weird and unnerving. I also don’t mind admitting that I am still struggling with my own knowledge of the texts. I hate being just one step ahead of the students, even though I know that this is not really anyone’s fault – it is just the way that things sometimes go in large schools with lots of variables. If anything, being not so well prepared has reminded just what it is like for less experienced teachers, where everything is new and every new text is a body of knowledge to learn!
Thanks for reading