Make every minute count

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Timing is of the essence, so get your students to practise planning,says Jane Christopher

Timing is one of the aspects I encourage students to focus on in GCSE English revision. Working out a schedule for an essay question can lift some of the mystique of writing a good comprehensive response and allows students to see that an essay is really a series of paragraphs, not a piece of blank A4 that only some can fill with confidence.

For example, in studying Of Mice and Men, we looked at different ways in which questions can be worded - even on a similar theme. Regartless of ability, students can at times fail to recognise that the focus of a question is something they are familiar with.

A creative part of this process, once we have looked at key terms used in past exam questions, is to give the class an area or theme to write a question on -with Of Mice and Men it could be "isolation" - and ask them to write three questions each on this theme, worded in different ways. We then compiled a list for our display board - 25 questions all basically asking the same thing.

I talked to them about a generic plan - one that would be able to provide the support they needed to respond to all of these questions, as it would be a check list of what would need examining in relation to isolation and loneliness.

The students could then see how the 25 questions all related to one check list. Through this, they have become more confident that key words can trigger off the memory of a generic plan, and they are then able to adapt something they already know, and feel confident about meeting the needs of a particular question. Crudely, the more able can adapt and the less able feel secure that they can then tackle the question following such a plan.

To plan the essay I gave them the following paragraph headings: * definitions of loneliness and isolation; * George - circumstances; * Curley isolating himself; * Curley's wife - context; * Lennie - we see him as isolated but is that how he perceives himself; * other ranch men - travelling; no ownership, no family; * Crooks - colour of skin and historical context; * Candy - potential for isolation but link to Dream; * the Dream - significance of and what it represents; * taking responsibility for others - Candy and dog George and Lennie, and how this relates to the title; * conclusion.

I asked the class, working in pairs to discuss their ideas, to put them in order - thinking about the links they would be making to demonstrate progression and development in their response - and discard any they didn't think were relevant. We were left with 10 in total, including the introduction and conclusion. For each heading we included five bullet points of aspects we would want to include, with the first linking from the last and the last forging a link to the next paragraph. For example, Curley:

* isolates himself from the other men through what he chooses to wear and how he behaves; * creates tension with others; * response to Lennie as example; * a married man; * not the boss but the boss's son, so has something to prove - this isolates him.

We then double ticked those points we thought would take more time to explain and examine. As a result, we had an ordered plan with links made and an idea of where we would need to allow more time.

Next, timing. We had a plan in order, but it would not guarantee that we would be able to use the time effectively. So, through class discussion, we broke down the hour available in the exam to respond. We took each paragraph, looking at the related bullet points, and discussed which we felt would take longer because of the evidence that needed exploring and because they were a focus in our answer to the question.

This is where the ticks made earlier come in use; they remind you which parts you felt would be of particular importance. For example, though Crooks is isolated in the book we thought that this would not prove as detailed a paragraph as examining George's isolation - he is, after all, one of the main characters.

Parts of this can be a struggle because you have to be prepared to rethink your plan if you run out of time, however, it is worth it because students feel they have ownership of the response and a method to make them feel secure.

We tested ourselves next, choosing a paragraph to write in the allocated time. We all got a shock when we realised how well you need to know the text. Finally, we did a timed response to the same question to see if our whole plan worked.

This may appear to be a long time to spend on one question, but it is important to see it through so that the students have this example to refer back to. It gives them a structure to use in their own planning and revision.

I chose to write a response alongside the students in the lesson, so that I could feed my experience into the subsequent discussion. We peer-marked both my response and that of the class alongside the grade criteria, starting with mine as a whole class so that they could see my marking as it happened.

For homework, I gave them two essay questions and told them to plan both for the following lesson, using our method. They would need to be ready to answer one of the two and would not know which one it would be until they arrived -builds the suspense!

Making students plan a response in advance prevents the jump back into the unknown that getting them to respond to an unseen question might produce; they will also have two more plans for their revision files.

Result? I tested them again recently after some anthology work, asking the class to talk me through how to tackle a question. They attacked a challenging question with confidence, telling me how to respond; they included timings and potential pitfalls, and provided me with a paragraph plan and links with the appropriate ticks to indicate more time needed. I was impressed.

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