Lines of least resistance;Subject of the week;English

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Plot the murder of Banquo or the path of Dunsinane Wood - Francis Farrell shows how to use graphs in assessing literature.

These days teachers are required to assess their pupils as never before. A comprehensive range of assessments increases the opportunities for pupils to demonstrate their abilities. Previous "failures" may only be a reflection of an inability to deal with the form of assessment and not what was being assessed.

The English department at the Jeff Joseph Sale Moor technology college, Cheshire, is exploring the contribution that graphs can make to assessment and success in literature.

There are several advantages to using graphs in literature lessons. First, it obliges pupils to support what they say with reference to the text. Clearly this is an important skill for them to acquire. Second, it may enthuse pupils whose preferred learning style lies more in mathematical or visual fields. Third, this mathematical flavour appeals to some boys, so it is another strategy for improving their performance.

So how can graphs be used? Gowie Corby Plays Chicken is a popular book with many of the Year 8 pupils. During the course of the novel Gowie is transformed from an anti-social, friendless bully into a mischievous but popular child. It is usual for pupils to find him an unattractive character at the beginning and then gradually to change their opinion as the story develops.

The pupils use the graph to record their changing opinion. They maintain the graph as they read the novel and at the end they have a clear visual representation of their changing opinions.

One approach is to add to the graph at the end of each chapter. Another is to add to it after each significant event. They can then talk or write about their opinions of Gowie and make reference to the graph to support their ideas. The graph acts simultaneously as a method of assessment for the teacher and a support for the pupil.

Two-line graphs can be used as well, allowing, for example, characters to be plotted against one another. For instance, when we read Madam Doubtfire pupils can plot their opinions of Daniel and Miranda against each other. In this case the pupils usually end crossing lines, reflecting the way that their sympathies switch from Daniel to Miranda as their history unfolds.

Studying the pupils' graphs can help identify whether an individual or class are producing judgments which indicate a misunderstanding. For example, some of my year 8 pupils awarded Gowie the highest level of respect when he was being at his most naughty. Chewing gum in school was all right by them. On the other hand, an idiosyncratic graph may represent an original interpretation.

Graphs don't have to be confined to just character studies. Another use of a line graph would be to trace changing moods or building tension in a book or a scene. For example, tracing the boys' atavism in Lord of the Flies or Macbeth's mounting terror at the banquet.

In all these instances the production of a graph enables the pupils to visualise the ideas and gain an overview. They can then express their insight and support what they say with detailed reference to the text.

The computer can be used as more than a word processor in this type of work. Young people's enthusiasm for computers may be enough to spur some students who may be struggling or simple opting out. The pupils can compose both essay and graph entirely on the computer or write an essay by hand and paste a graph.

You needn't be discouraged by the expertise needed to make a graph on the computer. It's straightforward enough and if a colleague can't help, a pupil most certainly will.

A word of caution: it is important to consider carefully the names of the axes you are going to use. If not thought through properly the graph may not be as useful as intended. It's probably not a good idea to simply let the pupils decide axes without agreeing terms with you.

Graphs throw up a variety of interpretations and judgments. Comparing graphs encourages the pupils to discuss their decisions. Observing the pupils working together provides opportunities for assessment of speaking and listening.

We are still exploring the potential for this area and would be delighted to hear of any experiences or suggestions from other schools.

Francis Farrell teaches at the Jeff Joseph Sale Moor Technology College, North Road, Sale, Cheshire M33 3JR. Fax: 0161 962 0020 E-mail:

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