No teacher wants to teach to the exam, but there is no escaping the fact that by following certain approaches on certain questions, students do better.
After years of examining various specifications for different boards, I’ve noticed that, for some questions, a logical, thought-through approach yields a significantly better answer.
One way to help students to formulate their ideas in a way that will earn them merit is to give them a simple structure to follow.
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A lot of mark schemes for extended writing questions have certain (often vague) criteria that need to be met for a student to move into the next band.
In reality, this vagueness translates to answers with differing levels of content and cohesion. The former relies on understanding and knowledge of the topic, the latter relies much more on how it is articulated.
Phenomenally knowledgeable students who cannot articulate their understanding will often score less than students who have less knowledge and understanding but can put their points across clearly.
GCSE English: the system
Teaching students a system to answer a question is a good idea for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives them a reference point to measure their successes against.
These successes can be incrementally built upon and, over time, complexity can be added in order to stretch answers to become more sophisticated.
Moreover, by breaking how to respond to a question down into smaller steps, cognitive load is significantly reduced and,in turn, the likeliness of success is higher.
Secondly, using a system for extended writing allows students to understand their own shortcomings within a question and heighten their self-awareness.
This draws attention away from the idea that “I can’t do question x”. Instead, it becomes “I am struggling with an element of question x” – a problem that is a lot more manageable (for teacher and for student).
From a teacher perspective, adding a level of logic to extended writing can also streamline teaching and allow a lot of opportunity for addressing specific misconceptions that arise.
By codifying answers into subsections or smaller elements, teachers can look out for areas that students are struggling with individually, and where classes are struggling collectively.
Moreover, teaching extended answers systematically allows for teachers to embed talk and literacy skills that can be directly applied in context, an added bonus. Using a system also lets teachers model effectively.
By using consistent phrasing and ideas it means that students see how to formulate responses clearly and it reduces the need for lengthy explanations from you.
Of course, there are potential flaws. If you decide to use a system for extended questions, you need to make sure you get it right. Getting it wrong can have catastrophic effects on your students, especially if you’ve drummed it into them for a number of years.
In addition, teaching systematically risks the loss of creativity and individualism. To counter this, you need to ensure that your teaching allows for the variety and phrasing that lets students express themselves. This takes careful management of expectations and how you teach a system.
By teaching students a logical system, you enable them to learn skills that give them access to the highest bands and you allow yourself a streamlined approach to teaching,
Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, specialist leader in education and head of English. He tweets @TeachMrRiches