How to make any text relevant to your students using essential questions

The Relevance Trap

It’s become the go-to question when English teachers are looking for new texts to teach: My students don’t read the books I used to assign. These old books don’t have anything to do with my students’ lives. They can’t see themselves in my usual texts. What new texts can I teach that are relevant to my students?

We all want our students to be engaged in our classes. We also want them to feel like their experiences are important and worthy of study, and teaching a range of diverse texts is undoubtedly an important part of showing them that this is the case.

However, especially as New Zealand looks set to require English classes to focus heavily, if not exclusively, on New Zealand literature, I can’t help but feel that it’s extremely limiting to suggest to our students that the only way to relate to a text is through characters that share our race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, age, or other group membership. Those identities are hugely important to us, but they’re only a part of the total human experience. In addition, no one text is ever going to seem relevant to everyone – increasing the diversity of texts we teach should be as much about confronting students with different experiences as it is about validating their own.

That’s why, rather than choosing texts based on relevance and student interest, I think we should be designing our teaching to show students how a text can be relevant to them, and to teach students to seek out that relevance by consciously applying what they read to their own experience of the world. I’ve been trying to do this ever since I started teaching, but it’s really only been since I started experimenting with Essential Questions that I started to see students truly making those connections and taking ownership of the texts. And essential questions haven’t just increased engagement – they’ve also helped me guide students to some of the core knowledge at the heart of English.

The Theory Bit: Making the Subjective Objective

(This bit of the post digs into some of the academic theory behind why I think essential questions are such a powerful tool. If you want to get straight to the practical classroom application of these ideas, feel free to skip to the next section!)

There are plenty of arguments for the importance of knowledge in education, and about why the move away from knowledge has been so disastrous, especially for disadvantaged students. However, this has always posed a bit of a problem for me as an English teacher. While I find it relatively easy to point to the knowledge in science or history, in my own topic things seem a bit more nebulous. I’ve fallen back before on language techniques, and grammar, and knowing about major authors and texts, and I do believe that all of those pieces of knowledge are an important part of the picture, but I always felt like something was missing: understanding literature.

Responding to literature can, of course, be a very subjective thing, and so it can seem impossible to translate it into anything resembling objective knowledge. We can teach students the standard interpretations of a given text, of course, and I think that has huge value, especially when students are new to literary analysis. However, that probably doesn’t help so much with helping students appreciate how the texts can be important to them; for that, some kind of personal interpretation or response is necessary.

I had a revelation regarding this issue when I read the chapter on English in What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth, edited by Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish. The chapter, written by Cuthbert, argues that the importance of literature lies in its ability to make the subjective objective:

The universal in aesthetics, human experience and subjectivity can be made objective in the arts not by generalization at a conceptual level, but by attending to the particular aesthetic form of a particular work.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (2017, p. 111)

In other words, literature takes the weird, subjective experiences that come with being a person, and puts them down on the page, effectively turning them into an ‘object’ which can be studied, analysed, and interpreted. Despite being subjective, people’s experiences are nonetheless very real, and are often also universal – think of every time you’ve felt strongly connected to a book, or a poem, or a song because it reflected something that you experienced yourself. When these subjective-but-universal experiences are put down on the page, we can gain some distance from them and scrutinize them differently from how we think about what’s going on in our own heads, while maintaining that connection to our own experiences.

How essential questions make the subjective objective

That’s all very well, but none of us want to stand up in front of year eleven and explain to them that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is going to be great for them because it will render their subjective experience in an objective form. Instead, this is where I bring in essential questions.

Essential questions are the ‘big questions’ that texts help us explore. They provide a perfect bridge between our students’ subjective experiences and the texts we want them to read. For example, when I teach Hamlet, these are the essential questions I use:

  • How do we make difficult decisions?
  • How do we balance thought and action?
  • How do we find our true identities when we play so many different roles in our lives?
  • How can we find or create meaning in our lives?

These are questions that Hamlet doesn’t answer, exactly, but that are certainly explored in the play. Because none of the questions are directly about text and can all be applied to real life, they make the real-world connections with the text more obvious to students, and open up possibilities for exploring students’ own subjective experiences of these questions along with the ways the questions are explored in the text.

Working with these essential questions alongside the text also creates a context for doing what Cuthbert refers to as “training the imagination.” While students should certainly develop their own answers to each of the essential questions, they should also be required to imagine what it would be like to be someone who answers them differently – how would Hamlet answer these questions? What about Horatio or Laertes? As students put themselves into the minds of others, they also see further possibilities for themselves, which is crucial if we’re teaching with any kind of social justice goal:

While there is an established literature in political philosophy that argues for the importance of reason and rational knowledge in democratic politics, it could be argued that the imagination is just as central for any progressive politics. Prior to organizing politically to change anything in the world, it is necessary to first imagine ourselves as subjectively intentional agents who are able to effect change in our social arrangements and relationships.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (2017, p. 118)

Tips for using Essential Questions effectively

There are two main things to be wary of if you’re thinking of integrating essential questions into your next unit. First, it’s easy to tack these questions on to the beginning or the end of the unit without really making full use of them. Essential questions are most powerful when students return to them over and over again, developing their understanding of the questions and the texts as they go.

The second challenge is ensuring that students do plenty of work that requires them to engage with the question in terms of the text. While it’s certainly a good idea to create space for students to develop and share their own responses to the questions – I do this at the beginning of my courses, and again at the end to see how their thinking has changed – if students are to benefit from the objectification of subjective experiences that we find in texts, they need to, you know, actually think and write about the texts.

Speaking of which, it is important that students write about the essential questions as well as discussing them. Just as literature objectifies subjective experiences, writing about that literature allows students to “objectify their internal responses to the rich world of textual meanings” (Cuthbert, p. 116). In other words, in writing their ideas down, students are forced to solidify their ideas and make them into an object to which others can respond.

Students should write about their answers to the questions at multiple times throughout the unit, and from multiple perspectives. As I mentioned, I always start by having students respond in their own voice. Later, I might have them answer the questions again from the point of view of a character in the text. You can also go a bit more general – how would a Romantic respond to the question, and how would it be different from a Realist’s answer? It can also be extremely helpful to bring in sources from philosophy or other disciplines. A highlight of my last Hamlet course was the time we spent learning about how an existentialist might answer the essential question “how can we find or create meaning in our lives?”, after which the students wrote paragraphs about whether or not Hamlet is an existentialist. That assignment does have some issues with anachronism, of course, but it certainly got students thinking harder about both the text and the essential question.

Essential Questions transformed my most recent courses on both Hamlet and Frankenstein. The quality of discussion skyrocketed, and students were much more ready to see the relevance of these texts to their own experience – without me needing to change to more ‘relevant’ texts. The questions created the relevance for us and gave students a number of different ways to explore the text as they read.

References

Cuthbert, A. S. (2017). English literature. In A. Standish and A. S. Cuthbert (Eds.), What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth (pp. 104-120). London: UCL Institute of Education Press.

Related Products

Full set of discussion questions for Hamlet, based around four Essential Questions! Includes two different sets of slides to suit your teaching style.

Finish your unit by having students write an essay about an Essential Question! This product includes a task sheet, brainstorming guide, essay planning template, thesis statement activity, and rubric.

Beginning a unit with a preview text: Using the Amleth legend to introduce Shakespeare’s Hamlet

There’s a certain kind of student who loves to remind you that Shakespeare “stole” most of his stories from other sources, usually citing this as a reason why the bard isn’t so great after all. But this knowledge can also be used to a teacher’s advantage. I like to start off my teaching of Hamlet by reading Amleth, the Danish folktale on which Shakespeare’s play is based.

Like most folktales, the Amleth story was passed around orally for hundreds of years, but it was written down by Saxo Grammaticus (“Saxo the Learned”) in 1185, making his version of the tale as old to Shakespeare as Hamlet is to us. Saxo’s version – handily available in a public domain English translation by Oliver Elton – is fairly similar in plot to the play, but with enough differences to avoid completely spoiling the story.

Why start with Amleth?

I always like to start off any unit on a longer text by reading a “preview text” – something shorter, whether it be an earlier text that inspired the longer one, as in the case of Amleth, or a picture book, a children’s retelling, or a non-fiction article that introduces important themes or context for the work to come.

Reading Amleth helps students put Hamlet into some kind of context, beyond being writing by that old Shakespeare dude. It puts Shakespeare himself within a wider context, which I find helps take him down off the pedestal a bit. Rather than being this great and powerful literary figure all on his own, we can discuss Shakespeare as just one stage in a sequence of different approaches to the same story, from Saxo to Shakespeare to The Lion King. As I said above, Amleth also provides a preview of the story, which helps students keep track of the narrative as they read the play, but Shakespeare made enough changes that you can always remind students that they don’t really know how it’s all going to end.

I also think it’s important to give students practice with the skills they’ll need for reading a longer text on a smaller scale first. As English teachers, we’re sometimes in the position of teaching a play or novel to students who have never read a text of this length before. That can be intimidating enough without also using the skills of analysis and working out how to read a challenging text at the same time. Reading and doing some writing about a shorter version of the story first gives students a preview of the kind of work they’ll be doing as they progress with the longer text.

So how do I use a preview text like Amleth?

Simply reading and talking about a preview text in class will help provide some context and introduce the plot before you begin reading your extended text, and that may be all you have time for. If you can, though, I recommend giving your students some of the following supports and tasks to really leverage your preview text to prepare students for their extended text study:

Vocabulary Support
Ideally, your preview text will be somewhat challenging (short texts are a great opportunity to get students working with complex language in small doses!). If that’s the case, you may want to provide a glossary to help with vocabulary, especially if that vocabulary also crops up in the main text you’ll be studying. For instance, Oliver Elton’s Amleth translation includes a few vocabulary words from Hamlet, like “obsequies” and “aught.”

Check for Understanding
When they dive into challenging texts, students need to monitor their own comprehension so that they can stop, slow down, and work out what’s going on. Although we ultimately want students to do this independently, the start of a unit is a particularly good time to remind them of this by explicitly checking their understanding every few paragraphs.

Scaffold writing skills
You’re going to want students to write about the main text, right? Probably in paragraphs and essays? Again, this is something that some students are going to find challenging, and a preview text is the perfect place to ease students into the demands of writing about literature using sentence-level tasks. If you’ve read basically any other blog post by me, you know I’m a big fan of Natalie Wexler and Judith Hochman’s The Writing Revolution for this. Having students finish a few because/but/so sentences, for example, is a great way to both check for understanding and help students see how to write about a text, while still keeping things manageable.

Introduce literary analysis
Short texts are perfect for getting students to start flexing their literary analysis muscles in short bursts. Elton’s translation of Amleth provides just enough interesting language choices to give students a taste of what to look out for, and a chance to try out writing about it. You can always ask students to have a go at drawing out evidence from multiple parts of the text to explain how it explores key themes that come up both in the preview text and in the main text; when my students read Amleth, I draw their attention to the importance of bloodline and rank, and the role of spying and subterfuge, both of which also turn up in Shakespeare’s version. This also gives us a chance to practice the all-important skill of pulling quotes out from the text to support our ideas.

This sounds like a lot of work to put together before I even start teaching the play!

Yeah, it kind of is. But don’t panic! If you’re teaching Hamlet and want to start off your unit with Amleth, I’ve got you covered. My Amleth: Hamlet Introductory Activity resource in the Scholar’s Atelier Teachers Pay Teachers store does everything I’ve said above. It’s got:

  • A full eleven-page version, and an abridged four-page version, depending on how much time you have available.
  • SIX different versions depending on whether you want the full text or an abridged one; whether you want a digital or a printable version; and whether you prefer to use PDFs or PowerPoint slides (which can also be uploaded to Google Slides).
  • Vocabulary support on every page, with a focus on words that appear in Shakespeare’s text.
  • Questions on every page to check for understanding, scaffold writing skills, and get students analyzing the text.

You can check out this product here and let me know in the comments what other preview texts you use!

Throwing out the PEEL: An Argument-based Approach to Teaching Paragraph Structure

Really, a PEEL pun? Who am I?

I never liked the burger/sandwich metaphor for writing paragraphs. Sure, it looks good on a poster – but when was the last time you ate a burger bun-first, working your way through one layer of ingredients at a time? When has a mouthful of bread given you a useful preview of what the rest of the burger’s going to taste like? The burger model might give students a superficial idea of what their paragraph is supposed to look like, but it doesn’t offer an understanding of how paragraphs are supposed to function.

Superimposed over those burger images is usually some kind of acronym – SEER, SEED, TEAL, TEEPEE, TEXAS, PEE, SEE, SEXY, and PEEL. Most of these acronyms ask for basically the same thing: a topic sentence, an example, an explanation, and some kind of concluding sentence. This is how I was taught to write paragraphs (we used SEER), and it’s how I taught paragraph writing as a classroom teacher (my school preferred SEXY, in the forlorn hope that it would get students’ attention). While the capable writers quickly transcended the formula, it gave the middling writers something to cling to, and the struggling writers something concrete to aim for.

This approach to writing never sat well with me. Yes, structure and scaffolding are very good things. But these templates always felt like a straightjacket to me. How often can you actually say something useful with one example followed by one piece of explanation? Those elements work best when they’re intertwined, guiding the reader from the general to the specific and back again, multiple times, in various permutations. This is a complex process, but I don’t think we make it any easier by forcing students to use formulae that prevent them from expressing their their ideas in useful ways.

This is a post about writing, so of course I’m going to talk about The Writing Revolution. Hochman and Wexler don’t use PEEL – instead, they emphasise topic and concluding sentences to frame and focus a paragraph, with a number of supporting details in the middle. These supporting details can include examples, explanation, elaboration, sub-ideas within the main idea, and so on. It’s a much more flexible format that’s also much more applicable to real-world writing.

I’ve used this approach to paragraph writing for all of 2020, and I’ve had great success with it, but I’ve also had some issues. Freed from the confines of one example, one explanation paragraphs, my students struggle to select and sequence their supporting details. I often find myself reading paragraphs that are a jumble of vaguely-connected ideas, jammed in between the topic and concluding sentences in no particular order. Without the certainty of knowing in advance what kind of sentence goes on each layer of the burger, some of my students had no idea how to put their ideas in a logical order.

Enter transition phrases. These are introduced in the revision chapter of The Writing Revolution, but I find it helpful to have students use them earlier, as they plan their paragraphs, to help them sequence their ideas.

One they have a grasp of the basic topic sentence-supporting details-concluding sentence structure, I give my students a table with lists of transition phrases from the six categories given by Hochman and Wexler: time and sequence, illustration, emphasis, change of direction, cause and effect, and conclusion. I introduce these, not just as cute phrases to jazz up your writing, but as moves you can make as you build your argument. After they’ve written their topic sentence, they can decide how they will structure their support for it – will they list reasons, using time and sequence transitions? Will they introduce an example with an illustration transition? Will they introduce an opposing argument, then flip it around with a change of direction transition? After they’ve made a couple of points, will they draw them together with a cause and effect transition? To practice using these transitions to sequence their ideas, I have students rearrange sentence cards (about the content we’re learning, of course) in the most logical order and put transition phrases in between some of them (it’s important to remind them that they don’t need a transition between every sentence).

This approach gets students thinking about the relationships between their supporting details, and how they ultimately combine to form an argument. It gets them out of the rut of giving a list of disjointed reasons in support of their topic sentence, which ultimately leads to better arguments at the whole essay level, too. In fact, I think that this is one of the key factors that distinguishes a good essay from a poor one in the higher grades and at university. Some students never move beyond “My thesis statement is true because of reason #1, reason #2, and reason #3.” Those who succeed end up with arguments more like this: “Idea #1 is an established fact. Therefore, idea #2. Because of this, idea #3 and, despite objection #1, idea #4. Consequently, my thesis statement is correct.”

It takes more than a table of transition phrases to get students thinking like that, but so far, I’ve found it a pretty good start.

Kids like learning *stuff*

Figuring out what kids actually find fun has always been a struggle for me. To start with, it’s not my top priority – if something’s worth doing, I’m perfectly comfortable requiring students to do it, whether they’re excited about it or not. Still, a classroom where students are having fun is is a much happier place to be, and it’s easier to get them to do the work if it’s at least somewhat enjoyable, so I make as much of an effort as I can without sacrificing my larger educational goals.

A trickier obstacle is that my own ideas of fun are drastically different from the average thirteen-year-old’s. I genuinely enjoy searching through style guides for pointless, obscure punctuation rules. I am bewildered by the fact that kids still get uproariously excited when I bring up a Kahoot. I still haven’t managed to fully put myself in the shoes of anyone who reads Hamlet for the first time and has any response other than this is the best series of words that has ever entered my brain, despite ample evidence that my adolescent reaction to the play was not universal. On the rare occasions that I have promised my students something “fun”, I have faced, at best, mocking, and at worst, mutiny. I manage to keep myself entertained, but it’s time to face facts: I am not a “fun” person.

Speaking of things that aren’t fun – learning to write. Specifically, the slow, step-by-step method that I have found actually yields results. The more I teach writing, the more grammar work I introduce on the front end, and the better my results get, but this work certainly doesn’t get kids excited about their time with me. And no, basing their exercises on Fortnite or Riverdale doesn’t help, especially when kids’ interests are so varied and change so fast. And yet, the majority of my students (the ones where what I teach them isn’t dictated by their upcoming exams) are engaged and enjoy my lessons. Why? As with so many issues in education, my answer is: I teach them stuff about the world.

Subordinating conjunctions aren’t fun. But here are some things my students have found fun this year (links are to my related TpT products, where I have them):

  • Discovering how bees’ brains work and how pesticides affect them
  • Learning about the causes and effects of the Great Depression
  • Reading excerpts of The Odyssey and learning about Ancient Greek culture, then asking to stick with this topic for an extra couple of lessons so we can cover more of the story
  • Researching the historical context of Beowulf and enjoying a deliciously gruesome story from a thousand years ago
  • Being shocked by the ending of The Lottery and reading articles about psychology to decide whether they think people would really behave like the characters in the story
  • Hearing for the first time about the huge intellectual upheaval known as the Renaissance, and how it was in part set off by another pandemic
  • Reading advice about how to sell expensive products, and using this information to become more informed consumers
  • Learning about how Homo sapiens have developed over millions of years

I pretty much never set writing tasks that aren’t related to historical, literary, or scientific content. My tutoring sessions and online classes mostly operate as cycles of reading something interesting, and then doing a series of writing tasks that build their understanding and retention while also developing flexible and deliberate writing skills. Crucially, the topics my students read and write about are interesting because they’re about the world beyond their experience – for the most part, it’s all totally new. As I’ve built up my resources for a more cohesive curriculum that allows for students to carry their knowledge from one topic over to another, their enthusiasm has increased even further. Students leave my classes as better readers, better writers, better thinkers, and more informed about their world and how it got that way.

This stuff works. A knowledge-rich curriculum sets teachers up to build skills as well as knowledge. And, it turns out, it’s even “fun.”

How to teach writing so students actually make progress

This book changed the way I teach writing – and everything else.

When I went into my first year of teaching last year, I brought with me a hodge-podge of different approaches to teaching writing. I believed, contrary to what people kept telling me, that it was important to teach grammar explicitly and systematically, but I didn’t really know how to do that. I wanted my students to see the power of being able express their own ideas clearly, in ways that people would pay attention to, but I didn’t know how to do that either.

Most of my writing “instruction” took the form of journal-writing tasks, or the writing that was required for my seniors to complete their assessments. I set individual goals for my year nines based on each piece of writing they did, but didn’t actually get them writing often enough for that to help. I addressed grammar with proofreading exercises (which research suggests don’t help) or by going through individual students’ work, while they avoided my eyes until I gave in and told them exactly what they needed to do. It was massively frustrating, and my students’ writing didn’t improve.

And then, as they do, a book came along to save me. I’d seen lots of people on Twitter mentioning The Writing Revolution, by Natalie Wexler and Judith Hochman (NZ Link | US Link [these are affiliate links, so I may get a small commission if you purchase via these links – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!]). Around term three, I ordered a copy and read it feverishly, scribbling notes in it about how I could use it in the time-poor, assessment-driven context I was working in. Term four would only be a few weeks long, so we were really in crunch time for getting all those internals finished, and it looked like some of Wexler and Hochman’s suggestions could be the cure I needed for my students’ incessant “I don’t know how to put this in writing” issues.

The core of The Writing Revolution‘s approach is an emphasis on good sentences as a prerequisite for paragraphs and essays. This explained much of the problems my seniors were having; the instructions they were given told them pretty much sentence-by-sentence how to structure their writing, but they didn’t know how to turn each part of that structure into a coherent, grammatically correct sentence. So, obediently, I gathered up a few of the most promising-looking sentence tasks from the book, and started giving them to my classes as Do Nows:

A typical Do Now activity for my year eleven class. We hadn’t been studying The Hate U Give, but a few students who I was particularly struggling to engage had read it, and I thought this might get them interested.

For the most part, my students muddled through these okay. Really, though, I was too short on time to do the thing properly. The reminder to “use commas and conjunctions where they are needed” wasn’t backed up with teaching on how to actually do those things. I was using the exercises, but I’d missed the key point of the book, which is that you have to explicitly and systematically teach students how to use these different sentence structures.

The magic of The Writing Revolution is in the sequence, specifically the emphasis on single sentences. Most writing teaching, Hochman and Wexler argue, rushes far too quickly into writing paragraphs and longer compositions, without establishing the building blocks – sentences – that paragraphs are made of. The Writing Revolution lays out a sequence of activities, beginning with identifying sentence fragments and building up to a variety of ways to form more interesting sentences, like starting with a subordinating conjunction or adding an appositive.

This sequence is now a major part of my tutoring. My students spend most of their time with me reading challenging texts, and writing about them using TWR tasks. I use the sentence tasks to help students unpick what the text is saying, as well as practice articulating those ideas in their own words. The students I started with at the beginning of the year are now moving into paragraph-writing tasks, which help them consolidate their understanding of the text and prepare for essay-writing. I’ve tried skipping parts of the sequence, but I’ve had much better results when I start at the beginning, even with more advanced students who can get through the first few steps quickly. Of course, most students are continuing with longer-form writing at school, and sometimes that means I temporarily jump ahead in the sequence to give them a basic foundation for tests and assignments.

What I love about this approach is that it makes progress so visible, for me and for my students. Rather than just being told to write and then getting vague feedback about “adding more detail” or “checking your punctuation” (common in the feedback I used to give), students are taught the specific, concrete moves they can make to improve their writing. Here’s an example of the improvement I’ve seen in one of my students’ writing:

First tutoring session

Instructions: write a paragraph using at least four words from the word bank (he used calendar, governor, and character)

Dave Woke up one morning and Looked at his calendar it was a very important day he was acting he jumped into his car with exitment and drove to the studio they put him on the cameras imidiatly he was playing the govenor he was the main character and the cameras went on.

After one term of tutoring

Instructions: Write an extension to the ending of the short story “Autumntime.”

The acorn was an oak brown it was Slipery and rough at the same time. On the way back I was thinking any way I could bring back a tree. When we arrived home I droped the acorn on the marble floor! I picked it up and asked Mum and Dad What it was they said it was a seed for a oke [note: this is how “oak” is spelled in the story] tree They said it was a food delicasy and said they would cook it for me. When dinner came it didn’t taste like the acorn but just synthetic beef.

Clearly, the more recent writing is still far from perfect. There are still plenty of run-on sentences, which we’re still working on correcting (this is, perhaps, a bit of a gap in TWR, but the various sentence types students learn help develop their sense of what is, and is not, a sentence). But this student now understands that a paragraph is a group of sentences, and there’s more variety in the types of sentences he’s using. In both examples, the student wrote the paragraphs you see without my guidance; in both cases, we went through and improved the sentences afterwards. It’s worth noting that Hochman and Wexler would probably have advised against these tasks, as the student hadn’t finished the sequence of sentence tasks that ought to precede such vague paragraph-writing assignments.

Another thing I love about Hochman and Wexler’s approach is that it keeps content central. They emphasise the importance of using their activities across the curriculum; I can’t attest to how well the sequence works outside of English, but the book is full of promising examples from science, maths, and history. As I said, I use the activities in the context of reading, so they do double-duty by building reading and writing skills simultaneously. Writing about a topic is one of the best ways to solidify content knowledge and ensure understanding, and the sentence-level tasks are brief enough to use consistently, even when you’re not teaching “a writing lesson.” I’d love to hear from teachers of subjects other than English who can comment on whether this approach is actually helpful, not just for incorporating literacy teaching into your classes, but for actually improving students’ understanding of your subject’s content.

Outside of tutoring, The Writing Revolution has made another major difference in my life: it’s finally got me actually planning my writing. As a student, I always wrote in order to figure out what I wanted to say. I couldn’t really plan ahead, because I needed to articulate my ideas in sentences in paragraphs before I had any idea what point I was trying to make. My essays, and even my masters’ thesis, started as a random assortment of half-finished paragraphs based on brainwaves I’d had while reading or thinking, which would gradually coalesce around a thesis, and could then be rearranged into a logical sequence. This is a super-fun way to write, and it’s why I love research work so much. But it’s also hugely time-consuming. Now that I’m trying to blog regularly, I can’t approach everything I write like it’s an essay worth 60% of my grade. I also usually sit down to write these with a good idea of what I want to say, and so using the straightforward outlining system in The Writing Revolution is much more efficient. Had I tried to write this post, or my last, without outlining it first, it probably would never have been written.

In short, if you’re frustrated with your students’ inability to string a sentence together, or you feel as if the lack of variety in their sentences is making it hard for them to express more complex ideas, I can’t recommend The Writing Revolution more. It’s completely changed how I teach writing and reading. It turns writing into a set of discrete skills that can be practiced and mastered, rather than a magical talent that you’ve either got or you don’t. If I’d been trained to teach writing this way, I think my classes last year would have made much more progress with than they did.

You can purchase The Writing Revolution here to find out more: NZ Link | US Link. These are affiliate links, so I may get a small commission if you purchase via these links – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!

Literature and Literacy: What’s the point of English?

Schools make students take English for longer than any other subject. At the same time, English has become less about literature and more about literacy. Should it be?

When I was in year twelve, on the heels of an exciting assignment in one subject and some less wonderful test results in another, I started to think that I might prefer a career as an English professor to one as a physicist. But this posed a problem; while the value to humanity of unravelling the secrets of the universe seemed readily apparent, I wasn’t completely convinced that allowing myself to be paid to read and write about Shakespeare wouldn’t basically be robbery. I started an English degree anyway, telling myself that education was about more than preparing for work, and that if I did pursue an academic career in the subject, I at least wouldn’t be contributing any less to the world than an investment banker or professional athlete.

By the end of my degree, I had added a major in Education, which came closer to fulfilling my need to be doing something useful. Still, the question of what studying English was meant to achieve continued to haunt me. I wrote essays about the importance of the humanities in education, and sometimes temporarily convinced myself that I was right. I’ve always been aware, though, that I was looking for reasons to justify a belief that I would have held regardless of its logic, and that this was affecting my judgement. Ultimately, the reason why I continued to argue for the importance of studying literature was because I loved doing it.

Most New Zealand schools require students to take English for longer than any other subject, usually through year twelve. Despite our constant bewailing of the emphasis on STEM above all else in our schools, English is actually treated as more essential than maths and science.

This has an impact on what high school English looks like, because for longer than any other subject, English classes are filled with students who don’t want to be there, who don’t see the point of the subject and may struggle with it. Last year I had a student who was moved into my class halfway through the year because she was refusing to complete any assessments in Music. There was no point in her remaining in the Music class if she wasn’t going to do the work, so she moved to a different option and her timetable was rearranged, landing her in my English class. She had no intention of doing any English assessments, either (despite being very able), but she couldn’t simply drop the subject. It was compulsory to be in an English class, regardless of what you were doing while you were there. Keeping such students engaged and earning credits becomes the English teacher’s job, adding another incentive to centre English classes on films and pop culture instead of literature.

So, why is so much importance placed on English? You don’t need me to tell you this: it’s because of literacy.

Despite frequent claims that all teachers are responsible for literacy teaching, and the availability of NCEA literacy credits across the curriculum, English retains responsibility for the actual teaching of literacy skills. When I’m hired as an English tutor, what’s usually wanted is literacy help. It’s English teachers who (hopefully) keep helping students improve their writing skills. It’s in English class that students are introduced to essay writing. English class is the only place where it makes sense to frequently put content on hold to work on the way a student expresses themselves. The lofty status of English in our schools is fundamentally tied to its reputation as a “skills-based” subject; while we can argue that the specific content of any other subject isn’t strictly essential, we have retained some sense that becoming educated entails becoming literate, and requiring students to sit in an English class for four years enables a school to at least appear to meet that obligation.

But what if English class isn’t the best way to teach literacy? There’s plenty of evidence that literacy skills are best taught in the context of learning content knowledge, but English classes (especially those for struggling students) have a tendency to turn into “literacy” classes. A glance over the NCEA English standards or the New Zealand Curriculum achievement objectives for English is enough to see that the study of literature (the content of English as a discipline) is not a priority. And fair enough: while studying literature has some advantages for literacy teaching in terms of encouraging attention to language and high text complexity, literary analysis and writing are very different skills, and writing a literary analysis essay has little in common with day-to-day adult writing tasks. Teaching students to analyse Shakespeare while also teaching them to write about it isn’t actually any easier than teaching writing alongside teaching chemical bonding. Because English teachers carry the responsibility for literacy teaching, however, the chemistry teachers get to continue teaching their subject, while the study of literature is cut out of English class to make room for literacy.

This is a shame, because the study of literature has much to offer students. Literature takes students out of their own heads, broadening their worldview and building empathy. Like other academic disciplines, studying literature builds conceptual knowledge. It also builds cultural capital, allowing students to participate in the wider intellectual conversation. Literature-centred English classes also give students access to the classroom’s most valuable resource – the teacher’s expert knowledge. Most English teachers have degrees in English literature, not literacy development.

However, just because something has benefits doesn’t mean everyone should have to do it. There are similarly strong arguments for the value of history, science, even PE (much as it pains me to admit it, as someone whose decision about which secondary school to attend was heavily influenced by finding somewhere that didn’t require PE beyond year ten). This is is how we end up with a bloated curriculum; we can always come up with a compelling list of benefits for any subject an enthusiastic teacher would like to offer. Literature is important. For some people (the kind who become English teachers), it makes our lives better. But I don’t see any reason why the study of literature – as opposed to literacy development – should be treated as more important than other academic subjects like history and science. In fact, when it comes to being an informed citizen, both of those subjects have more obvious value than knowledge of literature.

So, I’m not saying that high school English should be abolished. I’m saying that we should make room for English to be a subject in its own right, with a focus on literature rather than literacy. In this form, it probably makes sense for English to be equal in status with, say, history — introduced in the junior school, but optional for seniors. Perhaps there should be a requirement for students to take one humanities class, just as many schools require year elevens to choose a science option. Most importantly, this requires a significant increase in literacy across the curriculum. My favourite books on how to make this happen are Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution, and Mike Schmoker’s Focus. By properly, deliberately teaching literacy in every class (not just assuming that literacy teaching is happening because students have to read and write occasionally), students can spend more time building this essential skill set, and English teachers can get back to teaching the subject they know and love.

Image credits

“old books” by vandentroost is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

“Emptiness” by YuMaNuMa is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

My thoughts on the NCEA changes

I deliberately haven’t looked too much at what others have said about the NCEA changes that were announced today; I wanted to get my own thoughts straight first. Of course, that means that by the time you’ve read this I’ll probably have changed my perspective on some things, if only a little. I’m only going to write about the new literacy and numeracy requirements and the increased emphasis on external exams, because those are what I know the most about. I have no way of knowing whether the changes to SAC will have a positive or negative effect on students who need them, for instance. The literacy and exams issues, on the other hand, are ones that I’ve been thinking about for some time, and broadly speaking I think these changes are a step in the right direction.

Literacy & Numeracy Package

The plan here is that students will need to earn a package of 20 externally-assessed literacy and numeracy credits as a prerequisite to any NCEA certificate. This is a big shift from the current approach, where students can meet literacy and numeracy requirements through a very wide range of standards that are considered to require the levels of literacy and numeracy represented by the qualification.

This change is a response to the wide range of literacy levels seen in those who have these qualifications. When your literacy credits can come from so many different kinds of work, it’s not surprising that there’s a wide spread of actual literacy skills represented by the qualification. Only a few of the accepted literacy standards are actually explicitly marked on correct spelling and grammar, for instance. Restricting literacy to a specific set of standards should make the standard of literacy students are expected to develop more uniform across schools, which I think is a good thing. My hope is that it might also cause schools to shift their focus towards improving struggling students’ literacy skills, rather than hunting for alternative ways for them to get the literacy credits they need when students aren’t successful in mainstream pathways (the English achievement standards, for instance).

We’ve been told that the literacy and numeracy standards will be externally assessed (to avoid adding to teacher workload and to further ensure that a uniform standard is set), but not whether they will be exams or a portfolio approach. I wouldn’t be surprised to see NZQA go for a portfolio-based approach here, given (a) the complaints being lobbed at them so far about not being ‘innovative’ enough in their assessment practices, and (b) the claim that these standards will be available to students when they are ready for them, including as young as year seven.

It seems like there’s a good chance a literacy and numeracy portfolio might become a focus of the junior school, perhaps up into year eleven, especially for those schools that opt out of level one. This could be a good thing, making years nine and ten less of an aimless muddle (schools may have clear ideas of what they are trying to achieve in these years, of course, but it’s commonly accepted among most students I’ve talked to that no one does anything much in these years). But it could also narrow the curriculum in the same way National Standards did in primary schools.

This raises the problem of how NZQA plan to assess literacy if it is not connected to any particular discipline. You can’t demonstrate your ability to read and write about something, and background and content knowledge make a huge contribution to comprehension and writing. Students can’t show that they can communicate complex ideas if they haven’t been taught about complex topics. All of this raises the question of exactly where the “common benchmark” for literacy will be set – is it at “can fill in a form without embarrassing yourself”, or “able to write an essay?”

External Exams

Another key change is balancing out internal and external standards in each subject. Most subjects now have a large number of internally-assessed standards, so that it’s possible for students to gain a qualification without sitting a single exam. While this in itself might not be a problem, it does mean that courses can end up crammed with internals, to the point where there’s very little time for any work that doesn’t contribute directly to a summative assessment. There’s almost no time for practice, for learning content, for building skills over time and reaching a new standard by the end of the year. Students end up being assessed on what they can already do, rather than learning new things and being assessed on that new learning. If a student’s not already pretty close to the standard, there’s no time for them to learn – it’s more efficient to find a different standard that they’re already ready for. Saving up 50% of the assessment for a course until the end of the year means that teachers can help students build the knowledge and skills they need over the course of the year. It creates breathing space for courses to spend more time on learning rather than assessment, which ought to improve outcomes for both internal and external assessment.

I also don’t think that narrowing the range of standards available for each subject is a bad thing. It’s currently possible to complete a full NCEA English course without studying a written text. This is ridiculous. When assessment outcomes are high-stakes and you’re talking about a job that involves convincing teenagers to do things, you have to assume that the easiest pathway to a qualification is the one that most people will end up taking. This will disproportionately affect those students who are already the most disadvantaged, leaving them with qualifications that don’t represent the knowledge and skills needed to fully participate in our society.

Narrowing the options levels the playing field – provided that schools and students are given the resources they need to meet the new standards. Our goal for equity in education needs to be around the knowledge and skills students develop in school – qualifications are a proxy for this, not the end goal. If these changes result in increased disparities in terms of students gaining qualifications, it will be because we’re still not providing low-SES and Māori/Pasifika students with the knowledge and skills that they need. Changing the assessment system isn’t going to fix this problem, but it might help us see it more clearly.