Waving goodbye to point, quote, explain

Tobias Fish
2015-09-15 16:52



Is it time to say goodbye to P.Q.E.? After years of intoning this musty old acronym, I’m beginning to wonder whether there aren’t some better options out there. 

In the English teachers’ lexicon the meaning is well known: make your Point, supply a Quotation, Explain its significance. It’s considered a straightforward formula to support students’ essay responses. But, surely it has to be the most simplistic tactic and the most uninspiring thing to teach. Oh sorry I forgot, there's the utter tedium of the possessive apostrophe to contend with as well.

Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I tell a class our aim is to learn how to structure a response using P.Q.E., they stare back at me as if to say they’d rather impale themselves on their biros. 

Is it possible to teach the approach in a way which would be less painful and lead to better results? Or should it just be consigned to the dustbin of education-acronyms and replaced with something better?

Insomniacs should go online where die-hard P.Q.E. devotees have tried to liven up the approach. The effects are like mainlining Horlicks. 

My favourite attempt, admittedly for all the wrong reasons, is a cartoon depicting two monotone misfits meeting on the street to discuss what P.Q.E. is. You might be forgiven for thinking that sharing a cartoon with a class would be a great way of getting the ideas across. However, the attempt is totally and utterly dismal. No slapstick. No humour. No way of regaining the valuable time you just lost. 

No, it can’t be taught in an inspiring way and, to my mind, it isn’t a very helpful strategy either. Whilst students easily recall what each letter stands for, they often feel uncertain about whether their points are any good. Others complain they don’t know what they should be explaining or whether they've opted for the best examples to use.

Desperate for a change, I recently tried the following approach using poetry from the First World War.

I started by dividing my year 9 class into two. One side debated in role as Jesse Pope defending her portrayal of war in ‘Who’s for the Game?’. The other half of the class posed as Wilfred Owen arguing for his representation of war in ‘Dulce et decorum est’. Both sides made claims, cited evidence from the poems and addressed counter-claims. 

After the initial discussions, students wrote letters from Owen to Pope or Pope to Owen. In them they put forward their arguments for or against the way war was presented in each other’s poems.

At this stage, we focused our attention on perfecting our arguments. Instead of point, quote, explain, students were armed with questions: What claim does the poet make? Where’s the evidence of this? What assumptions does he or she make? Why? How strong is the argument being conveyed? What are the weaknesses in the poet’s claims?

The experiment seemed to work. Students who had struggled to think of points before, could see those their poet might put forward. Applying the questions, many could generate their own discussions. Students strengthened their arguments and evaluated them from different viewpoints.

Sure, the letter form wasn't the same as an essay, but the skills were transferrable and, what’s more, there was absolutely no point, quote or explain. So from me, it's goodbye and good riddance P.Q.E.


Tobias Fish teaches English in the East of England