Writing a lot about a little has been the mantra of exam boards for the last few years but I still find that my students struggle with it. Being able to zoom in on details in texts is a skill that students need in almost every area of both the English Language and English Literature courses.
However, no matter how often I repeat this mantra to my classes, they still fail to unpack the layers of meaning in language choices. So, what’s a teacher to do? Limit the number of words they can write about and extend the number of words they need to write.
In a recent GCSE poetry lesson, I gave it a try. Each student began the lesson with one word (in a box) from the poem ‘Ghazal’. They had to fill a box with words and phrases which they associated with that word.
We then, as a class, looked at the line that the words all came from and worked out which of our annotations were the most appropriate.
After reading the poem and discussing the ‘big picture’ of the relationship in the poem, students then had to work in pairs, selecting what they felt were the four most important words. In having to make that choice, students had to think carefully about significance and what this really means.
They were given a sheet that was split into four and had to fill the whole of each box with their annotations about each word. By providing them with a physical space to fill, this made them push themselves to consider the layers of meaning and alternative ways of reading the details.
The final task was that each student had to write 150 words about one word in the poem, answering the question : ‘How does the poet present the relationship in Ghazal.’
I have often found that providing students with word limits for their responses really helps them to focus and extend their answers. It can also bring out the competitive element in the most lethargic of students,which is always good. By forcing students to extend their answers on just one word, it made them develop their responses and finally unpack the layers of meaning in the poet’s choice.
This helped my weaker students to write in a more detailed way about language choices and it enabled my more able students to get to grips with alternative interpretations. Maybe the exam board know what they are talking about after all!
Advance Skills Teacher
Steyning Grammar School