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.


I have worked through some of my own reflections on these approaches, as a way of entering the dialogue, not concluding it….

So, the formalist approachclearly foregrounds form over content.  Students won’t be able to guess at the structure and discourse style of a literature essay, it will need teaching.  For inclusivity, let’s take Ofqual’s definition of a critical reader.  An ‘informed personal response’ emerging from ‘an analysis and evaluation of the text’ that admits ‘the possibility of different responses’ needs to have been formed before students begin to structure their response on the page.  Scaffolds help to structure thinking, but they assume that the thinking is already emerging. We can hear when form is overly dominating content when we read

‘a parrot-like repetition of words by the child, simulating knowledge but actually covering up a vacuum.’ 

Sound familiar in relation to essays you have assessed?  The comment comes from Vygotsky’s ‘Mind in Society’, in which he argues that conceptual thinking can only be achieved through deliberate, focused, strenuous mental activity by the learner.  The teacher can and should create the context, learning sequence, stimulus and guidance for this to happen.  Direct teaching of concepts will result in ‘empty verbalism.’  ‘What was it you said we had to write again, Miss?…’

Juzwik et al. argue that the conversational entryapproach is least used and holds the potential to improve student motivation and personal growth.  If, however, the ultimate expression or outcome of entering the argument has to be a literature essay, the student may well struggle to transfer informed, personal and contingent responses with clarity and coherence.  Now Jim – remember our young teacher – wanted to reflect on his teaching of GCSE classes.  He may feel the clock is ticking and that the literature essay needs always to be his destination.  What might this be doing to students’ motivation and sense of efficacy on a 2 year course?  How often should Jim ask the students to write formally?  Juzwik et al.’s paper links well to research at the English and Media Centrewhich encouraged readers in KS3 to gain confidence with interpretation by capturing emerging thinking in less formal, exploratory, written responses.

The structured approachis neither easy or linear. Teachers need to believe in the potential for academic dialogue to change thinking and invest in guided professional development cycles of implementation and reflection to improve their questioning and mediation skills.  If well managed, dialogue can induct students in to a process of thinking that is discipline specific.  Students must, collaboratively, build evidence for a position.  They are steered to take a counter position.  They must consider how social or historical frames of reference might lead them to adjust an interpretation, or admit others are possible, not just learn some facts about Jacobean England and witchcraft. Over time, students’ classroom discourse moves closer to the language and the structure of argument needed for essay writing.  As Applebee and Nystrand’s research has evidenced, this can mean less time and energy is needed to bridge responses in to writing.  They are thinking and talking like an essay, because their critical reading schemas are developing in long-term memory.

At this point, and I was open and honest in declaring this to Jim, I will admit to an informed and tested belief in the potential of dialogue to improve the collaborative and individual reasoning needed to become a critical reader.  I am a tutor for Let’s Think in English: a rigorous, research-informed cognitive intervention.  It combines aspects of the structural and conversational entry approaches above. Its impact on students’ confidence and elaboration of thought tends to reduce anxiety and increase the motivation to write about texts.  I am certain that all Let’s Think teachers shift in to formal, explicit modes for teaching argument writing.  But they do so when students have developed and elaborated an argument that is personal, evidenced, rigorous and unafraid to admit uncertainty.  This will have involved dialogic enquiry in to the text and often interrogation of written argument models, both for their ideas and their structure.

Hodgson and Harris have written hereabout the difficulty even undergraduate students of English face as they try to build a mental model – a schema – of what argument in English demands of them compared to other disciplines like History or Psychology.  Apparently, the very same tension arises between bringing personal and wider critical perspectives to bear on interpretation.  The researchers’  recommendations to university tutors are that they support their students to develop subject specific schemas, as well as clarifying the requirements for a written assignment through models.

Would we say the same for students at secondary school? I wonder what Jim thinks…

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