Question time

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Kate Sida describes how she incorporated questioning, one of the key characteristics of assessment for learning, into her lessons

Assessment for learning

(AFL) is one of the priority areas of the key stage 3 strategy and once again teachers are under pressure to incorporate these ideas into English lessons.

There are four key characteristics of AFL: using effective questioning techniques; using marking and feedback strategies; sharing learning goals; peer and self-assessment. I discovered that using them was not as bad as I thought it would be, since much of it was already present in my teaching.

As the three-part lesson has become central to most KS3 lessons, I found I had to implement only a few changes to incorporate AFL into my teaching.

Basically, I have made the learning objectives more accessible to students, encouraged more self-assessment and included a range of questioning techniques into the planning of my lessons. This covers most of the requirements for AFL.

Using effective questions in the classroom

In the past I used questions regularly as a starter or plenary to my lesson, tending to recap what we had learned last lesson, as well as question what the students already knew about a new topic.

However, having read the various publications on AFL on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website, and from the courses I have attended on different learning styles, I realised that I needed to move from asking students "what?" and "how?" descriptive questions, to "why?" and "what for?" open questions.

When planning a lesson I now incorporate two or three good quality open questions, which can either start my lesson or become part of it. For example, when teaching about writing styles - specifically about developing an argument -I don't give an introduction but start the lesson by asking:

"Why do we have arguments?", "Is it important to argue with others?", "Does an argument have to be just verbal or can it be written?", "Can you summarise what you already know about an argument as a writing style."

I have found that planning questions in advance develops students'

understanding much more effectively than just thinking of ones off the top of my head. In previous lessons, for example, I would have asked spontaneous questions such as: "What is an argument?", "Whom do you argue with?", "Why do you argue?", "What do you know about an argument as a writing style?" These unprepared questions only required quick single-word responses from five or six students. Now that I plan questions in advance the responses are much more thoughtful and I can give students thinking time in pairs if I consider the questions merit it.

Here is a list of planning questions I have used in my lessons that work as a starter or as a plenary. I vary the type of response I want from the students -sometimes it is written on whiteboards, in pairs and so on, or it is simply verbal:

* Can you describe the language that is used here ...

* Is it possible to predict the next ...

* In what ways can you compare this text with ...

* Can you imagine this had been written when ...

* How can we prove that this writer had intended ...

* How would you recommend this idea to ...

The other thing I have had to learn is to allow students thinking time, which gives a noticeable improvement in their answers. As teachers we tend to fill in pauses with our own voice. I have frequently asked a question, not got a quick response and then given the answer myself. I used to do this to keep the pace of the lesson going. However, I have found that if I count to 20, I receive much more thoughtful answers or, if there is nothing forthcoming, I then say to a student: "Harry, I will be asking you in three minutes to explain the poetic feature that is present in the first three lines of this poem."

I then move on to another question and almost without fail by the time I get back to Harry he has miraculously come up with an answer. It might not always be the right one, but it is an answer!

Lesson idea

I have often used this lesson with Year 9 and for a whole range of topics. I used it before AFL became a KS3 priority, so it was not created for that purpose. However, when I analysed the content of the lesson I found that it covered most of the criteria for AFL, so I thought it made a good example. In the lesson:

* questions are used as a method to drive the lesson's content;

* the students feel more in control of their learning;

* students' understanding of a topic is deepened as the lesson builds on, rather than repeats, previous learning.

At the start of the lesson I divide the class into groups, sometimes by ability, gender, friendship, and so on. I give each group a piece of plain paper, and a red and green piece of paper to each student.

Next, I write on the board the learning objectives for a writing task, using an argument and some question cues. The starter activity for the lesson (depending on the class) is to recap the definition of the following question cues, which I also write on the board: outline, describe, why, change, simplify, connect, convince, explain.

I briefly introduce a topic - in this case a style of writing - using an argument. Then I write down the writing or speaking tasks which are to be completed by the end of the lesson. I normally have more than one task for differentiation purposes as some tasks will naturally generate more questions than others.

At this point I have assumed that, in accordance with the KS3 strategy, styles of writing would have been covered in Years 7 and 8 and the central ideas will not be new (as my school is for 13 to 18-year-olds, this would have taken place at middle school).

I then tell the students to write on the plain paper the questions they need to ask me in order to understand the learning objectives. However, they are not allowed to use "what" or "how".

After they finish I move around the room, reading out questions from the various tables at random, and the class vote on whether they need me to answer the question by holding up pieces of paper. A red piece tells me that I don't and a green piece tells me I do. My response is determined by the amount of red or green I see in the room. I find it gives an instant picture of the learning that has taken place and it shows me where there are gaps.

Obviously, some of the jokers in the class will keep holding up the red paper, but if it is a class you know well then these students don't cause a problem. Incidentally, I have also found that a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down works as well and takes less preparation.

Once I have answered the questions the students are asked to complete the task. For the plenary, I ask them to read out a short extract of their writing and then, in their own words, convince the rest of the class that they have completed the learning objectives which are still on the board.

At this stage, some students need guidance from me to match their completed writing to the learning objectives, but in my experience students in a mixed-ability class always have something worthwhile to offer.

I have found this to be a useful lesson for KS34 classes, especially where I have students from the middle school or students in Year 11 that I haven't taught in Year 10. It quickly shows me which parts of a topic I need to teach and which areas the students already know. It also gives them the opportunity to feel in control of their learning as they can question the purpose and outcome of the learning objectives.

Kate Sida teaches at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk and has been a KS3 English teacher for eight years

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