Winds of change

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Andy Day tells how Year 7s developed their thinking and writing skills through geography projects

Well into our first year of consciously developing literacy skills in our Year 7s at Withernsea high school and technology college, East Yorkshire, we have learned at least one thing: do not mention the word! We emerge conspiratorially from a lesson on summarising techniques and mutter:

"Almost said it once - but I think I got away with it."

The primary teachers have done their jobs well, immersing their Year 5 and 6 pupils in the literacy hour, and we are now encountering in our Year 7s an awareness of form, genre, technique and audience. But they also know they have been "done" - in the sense of an over-barbecued pork chop. Not a lot of "sizzle" left if you go for an up-front, direct approach. So we sneak it into their geography in a supplemental approach.

Jane Lodge, our head of English, has been team-teaching in the Year 7 geography lessons on the issue of wind-farms in the region. Class teachers Tim Carr and Sarah Harris spend 30 minutes with their classes exploring the site requirements and range of views that might influence the decision whether to give planning permission. Jane Lodge then takes over and gives the class a 10-minute session on what makes for a persuasive argument, how to back up points with evidence; power words which can convey emotions; how to convince someone else, not just shout them down.

Thirty journalists start to draft their newspaper reports on an imaginary public meeting. Their headlines suggests we are producing a generation of tabloid sub-editors: "How about 'Buzzing Bridlington', Sir". The muttered response from the back, "Been there. It was about as buzzing as a flattened fly", suggests skills of alliteration, appreciation of simile, and geographical judgment consistent with the evidence. A week later the reports come in. And, yes, they are of a quality that we have not seen before, because in previous years we have not anticipated and planned for it, and have not systematically supplied the techniques to be able to create these outpourings of studied debate in Year 7.

The teachers publish a range of pupil responses in booklet form and distribute them to the class to "level" themselves. We have realised that progression through levels 4, 5 and 6 in geography is about thinking and language, and you cannot have one without the other. The ability to "accurately describe", to progress on to "explain" and, becoming more sophisticated, to "present conclusions that are consistent with the evidence" means pupils having the familiarity with language to be able to identify what they are doing at present, and what they need to go on to include.

I think back to all the times I have written onpupils' work: "OK, but needs more detail. How about explaining things in more depth?" While I had an image of what "more detail" and "explanation" look like, for many they were just words that suggested they write more.

We are beginning to clarify what "progression" means in terms that both teacher and taught can understand. This has ramifications all the way through to our GCSE and A-level groups. Letting students know what they have to do to improve means distilling categories of thinking, and the writing that results, into steps of progression that can be perceived, understood, and then done.

What has worked well? Writing frames; key paragraph starter phrases; technique lessons on using bullet points, and other presentation devices; scan-reading; and pairing students to check their spellings and punctuation. Individual dry-wipe white-boards have generated as much excitement as an "Etch-a-Sketch" would have done 30 years ago. These have proved so popular for constructing mind-maps, classifying exercises, sequencing tasks and drafting tablets that older classes want them too.

Finding an audience for the work other than the teacher has had an effect on the boys particularly. We want to e-mail their responses to local town-planners and councillors to encourage high-quality responses. We work with the ICT department to see if the Powerpoint presentations they are learning to create can be used for reports in their geography lessons.

The next challenge is the systematic removal of literacy support devices that we put in place in the early part of key stage 3. The aim is to move from the explicit guidance that wordframes offer to a situation where pupils have learned the technique and write a structured response without guidance. We still need to work on phasing this among pupils of differing abilities.

The "literacy" thrust has thrown up a wider range of issues than just trying to make pupil responses more eloquent and grammatically accurate. In rewriting KS3 schemes of work, it has meant looking closely at what we are trying to achieve, build-in opportunities for in-depth responses, and focus less on getting through quantities of geography and more on qualitative outcomes that use geographical issues and insights to produce sophisticated ways of thinking about the world.

It has illuminated the links between ideas, the language to convey them, and geographical progression. When I slip from a Year 8 lesson on farming to a Year 11 lesson on farming, I want the older students, using similar material, to show three year's progress: greater detail and more explanation. We are now more focused on how to achieve this.

Andy Day is head of humanities at Withernsea High School and Technology College, East Yorkshire

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