'Are you modelling good work in English, or are you just spoon-feeding your students?'

16th February 2017 at 15:03
Modelling
When teachers rely too too heavily on scaffolding for students' reading responses, they can prevent them from thinking for themselves, says a director of English

English teachers don’t half love a good acronym. GAP. AFOREST. (See below for a glossary of these and following acronyms). They are as familiar to us as our dog-eared copy of Of Mice and Men.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous of these acronyms is PEE. Or "point, evidence, explanation", for the uninitiated. Used the country over as a way to scaffold students’ responses to what they have read, I’ve been reliably informed that it’s even found its way into subjects like history and business studies.

Inventive English teachers have taken this most basic of frameworks and developed it into a whole plethora of acronyms designed to scaffold students’ reading responses. From WET RATS and PEA RAW to SQUID and SQUAD, I’ve tried them all.

Behind these catchy noms de guerre often lie sentence starters. Much like painting by numbers, these starters allow students with even the flimsiest grasp of a literary text to shape their knowledge into a semi-coherent written response. No wonder pressured teachers like myself make liberal use of them.

A perhaps natural extension of these sentence starters is the rather irritatingly abbreviated WAGOLL ("what a good one looks like"). Rather than beating around the bush, these model responses show students exactly what is required. Of course, some bright sparks quickly realise that closely mimicking passages from these answers will result in an answer that the teacher will rather like.

The dangers of modelling

It is at this point that the dangers of these scaffolds become clearly defined. Over-enthusiastic or too-consistent deployment results in answers which are inauthentic, more teacher than student, and lacking the natural rhythm of language that so clearly signals the personal engagement of the student.

Perhaps teachers themselves encourage overreliance in their haste to achieve a final product that hits the right notes. It takes a strong teacher to resist the lure of a "quick fix". But even if the student's response is a bit rough around the edges, I think we should all want to hear a little of their personality in their answer.

How do we show our young people how to construct a coherent response to a question whilst also allowing them to have their own ideas and freedom of style and expression? I’m starting to realise that when it comes to teacher input at the point of writing, less is more. Show a good example, by all means, but then take it away. Start with sentence starters but quickly boil them down to trigger words.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will be aware that I’ve championed the sentence starters "literally", "metaphorically" and "symbolically" as a way into analysis of layers of meaning. But, if I’m honest, even this approach has led to overreliance and stilted responses from my most-able students, who should instead trust their own self-expression and understanding of texts.

In future, I’ll be starting with the bare bones of response verbs, before rushing to dig out the sentence starters. "Implies." "Evokes." "Signifies". "Creates." "Emphasises." These are the words that lead to that golden nugget of critical engagement.

So, next time you trot out your favoured acronym or use a model response, be sure to check that your approach still allows for the voices of your students to be heard. Build in wiggle room and allow their own interpretations the space to breathe.

A glossary of acronyms

GAP = "Genre. Audience. Purpose."

AFOREST = "Alliteration/anecdote. Facts. Opinion. Repetition/rhetorical question. Emotive language/ellipsis. Statistics. Tripling."

SQUID = "Statement. Quotation. Inference. Development."

SQUAD = "Statement. Quotation. Analysis. Development."

WET RATS = "Words. Effect. Techniques. Reader. Author/alternative. Themes. Structure."

PEA RAW = "Point. Evidence. Analysis. Reader. Alternative. Writer."

WAGOLL = "What a good one looks like."

Caroline Spalding is director of English at Tupton Hall School, Chesterfield. She tweets @MrsSpalding

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