A good friend of mine had been coaching a young English teacher. He had just taken on a whole school responsibility. We will call him Jim. Committed and excited as Jim was to develop in a new direction, through coaching, he realised that he did not want to lose a focus on developing his subject specific expertise. Jim had recognised the struggle his GCSE students were going through to write well-argued critical essays and wondered if his current repertoire of approaches were the most effective. I was asked to meet him briefly and suggest some professional reading.
Teaching essay writing at secondary – and advising other teachers how they might improve their teaching has been central to my professional life as an English teacher then adviser. This moment reminded me that some aspects of teaching can become so central, so tacit, that we no longer question them. What do we mean by developing the knowledge, understanding and skills needed for the literature essay?
The person writing most clearly and eloquently on this subject, of whom I am aware, is Robert Eaglestone. I would recommend all teachers of English read his book, “Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students”. I found its recognition of the slippery, controversial (and relatively young) discipline of English honest and reassuring. English Literature exam courses have been more subject to change than any other, in their content – what should we read? – and their process – how should we be reading? What is great about Eaglestone’s book is the acknowledgement and celebration that the discipline specific thinking needed to ‘do English’ is wrought with tensions. And that is the point, not the problem. Reading is, he defines, ‘a dynamic act of interpretation.’ As a teacher, I can’t do that thinking for you, I can only induct you in to the process of interpretation. The most exciting aspect of text interpretation is often, at once, what some students find most frustrating. ‘But what am I supposed to think?’
So we read and make meaning using our own frame of reference, our personal response (…still in all top band mark schemes…) then stay focused and fascinated as we assess and analyse this response using other frames of reference (how writers’ choices and methods are linked to their intent, how they contribute to impact on reader, how social, political and historical lenses refine or alter meaning, how we compare the text to others like it either in its theme or genre). English, perhaps more than any other school subject, says to students:
‘Be you – you matter. What you think and feel about this text matters, but keep growing new dimensions to your thinking through interpreting this text using different lenses (symbolism, prosody, context, structural patterns…) Listen to the views of others and remain open to arguments where they are convincing.’
Over time, a personal response becomes an informed, critical, personal response. And there lies the rub. Think, feel, be personal in your response, be yourself, but also be rigorous, analytical, clear and organised in your thinking as you build a knowledge of how texts work.
The same tension between the personal/expressive and the systematic/structural nature of the literature essay seems to sit at the heart of educational research in to how best to support students to write effective critical argument. A recent paper in NATE’s English in Education research journal by Juzwik et al compares three approaches to teaching argument writing in the secondary phase. This is in American schools and not in literary contexts, but I will be honest and say there seems to be little, specific research in this area, probably because the outcome aims are so complex – the evaluation of outcomes is complex.
The authors are clear that all three approaches nurture vitally important aspects of argument writing, but each foregrounds some aspects over others. I will try to translate generic ‘argument writing’ in to the context of writing critical argument in response to literature.
The formalist approach:
This approach leads with being given forms and formulas to support writing. A position is given or agreed. Students select evidence to support this position and at times a counter-position. So perhaps for: ‘How far is Lady Macbeth presented as a powerful character?’ A position may be agreed in class ‘Initially, in her stage presence and influence on her husband, she seems powerful but Macbeth’s retreat from her and her descent in to madness hint at underlying weaknesses.’ The teacher provides a structural model and from this, scaffolds the whole text shape, paragraph and sentence level structures on which to map the content. Perhaps sentence openers, discourse markers, paragraph supports like PEEL, SEAL or ‘structure strips’ often shared on Twitter relate to this kind of approach.
The approach and example as described by Juzwik et al. seem more like the use of a writing frame, than the overt modelling and gradual handover of a writing process which includes scaffolds and frames.
More recently developed, reciprocal manifestations of this approach (explored here) are based on a writing process model, more effective than a sole writing frame, in which students are encouraged to plan, draft, edit and revise. Andrews et al.s review of teaching argument writing from 2007 here concludes that scaffolded assistance towards independence is a complex process that depends on gradual changes in the learner’s strategic and domain specific knowledge, as well as on their motivation to keep working through struggle. Structural scaffolds, alongside teacher modelling and facilitation can support what is initially an externally controlled process to become internally understood over time.
In yet another useful blog for EMC, Kate Oliver unpicks the subtlety behind using models and modelling as a teacher. She writes about approaches that initially reduce cognitive load (I’m thinking about what to say and how to say it and trying to write with clarity and accuracy…) by inviting students to structure an analytical paragraph from some given statements. This remains an active reasoning process (i.e. more likely to be internally adopted over time) if students are asked to justify their sequencing and elaborate on the argument that is given. Other DARTs (Directed Activities Related to Text) that support students ‘getting a nose for quality’ in argument writing would be the sequencing of whole paragraphs, the matching of an assertion (or ‘point’) to its evidence and exploration. Pam Hook’s SOLO hexagons could be used to generate and evaluate the best evidence drawn from a text to argue a given point. Alternatively, hand out a range of evidence hexagons – populated with evidence – and ask students to group them (relational thinking) making the common link between what they reveal about character change, the unfolding of a theme, nuances in symbolism etc.
The conversational entry approach:
This approach foregrounds the idea that written argument derives first from spoken argument in which the speaker/writer is entering an existing debate from their own socially situated stance. An introduction to Macbeth might start by asking students to take a position on whether ambition is a force for good or bad – and what evidence or experience supports their view. The group then encounter a range of views which emerge from the play to consider alongside their own. “Doing well in life opens up opportunities for our children.” “If you stay loyal and work hard, you will be valued and noticed.” “You have to be ruthless to get on in life.” And so on. It takes effort and focus to journey through the play sensing when and how the discourse around ambition as a tragic flaw becomes more complex or problematic and how this affects our view of the protagonists. In structural terms, does Shakespeare’s decision to open with the unearthly witches reduce our negative judgement of Macbeth when his thought ‘whose murder yet is but fantastical’ moves so swiftly to King Duncan? Has his ambition been stimulated by supernatural forces? Or is his ‘o’er hasty’ leap to murdering the King a signifier of the fatal ambition lying beneath? Higher order thinkers can hold both possibilities, understanding how Shakespeare’s drama plays on these very uncertainties.
The structured process approach:
This process emphasises the need to develop critical thinking through collaborative enquiry. The example in the Juzwik paper is not enormously helpful to the teacher of literature. More closely related, and of the same school of thought, would be Arthur Applebee and Martin Nystrand’s work on developing the cognitive and affective process of critical reading in the social context of the classroom through dialogic instruction. The discipline of ‘doing English’ is not just building knowledge, but being inducted in to ways of knowledge building.
This approach takes considerable skill and practice on behalf of the teacher who needs to:
build a safe, respecting, high-challenge, low-threat classroom community
plot questions and tasks that build towards high academic demand
use discussion as the medium to grow understanding
Nystrand’s paper ‘Questions in Time’ was seminal in clarifying the contingent moves teachers can make to ensure multiple perspectives are examined, thinking is elaborated and the discourse is steered in purposeful directions. This is so much more than ‘sharing ideas in groups.’
Juzwik et al. encourage English teachers to be reflective about the potential benefits, assumptions and drawbacks of each approach. Their overt stance is to compare approaches to argument writing to assess the degree to which each nurtures the significance of argument for students.
Are my own views in this argument – and do I care about them? Are they helping me to build who I am?
Their paradigm is that cognitive growth is always socially situated. This is an interesting position to consider as we sit on the brink of unprecedented changes to the Ofsted schedule, which will inspect curriculum intent and implementation, not solely student outcomes in examination. Is your curriculum intent, as an English department, to support students to feel that they are entering a dialogue about literature, and that their experience and their ideas matter? Writing great literature essays might be a necessary, examined outcome linked to this intent.