Why I stopped talking about language features to my GCSE English re-sit students
(and what happened when I did)
written by Kirsty Powell
A bit of background and my ‘why’
In the past six years I have taught both Functional Skills and GCSE English but in this article I want to focus on something that I have discovered through my teaching of the GCSE English language re-sit qualification (which has been what I have spent the majority of my time teaching). It’s the change to my approach that I feel has had the most profound influence on my students and, therefore, also on me as their teacher. I have seen overwhelmingly better enjoyment and success from my students since I made certain changes and I want to encourage other GCSE English teachers to consider whether any of their students could benefit from aspects of this approach.
In Marshall and Wiliam’s ‘English inside the black box’ they discuss the aims of English teaching. I would describe myself as an ‘advocate of critical literacy’ Marshall and Wiliam (2006, p. 3). Critical literacy, to me, means not only understanding what we read but also having an opinion on aspects such as word choice, because we consider the effect they might have on the reader. Likewise, critical literacy means being conscious of the choices we make when writing and expressing our views, with consideration for the message we want to communicate and how it may be received. In other words, my English teaching is about helping students to express their ideas in powerful ways and to ‘develop judgement about the quality of work they and others produce.’ Marshall and Wiliam (Ibid, p. 5). In order for any of us to develop our critical literacy skills, we need exposure to the work of others and lots of opportunities to think about and discuss their work, without fear of negative judgement, and we need helpful spaces to put what we have learned into practice. We need teachers who select the most appropriate pieces that will engage, motivate and inspire us and who create a culture of safety and openness to express our ideas and give us useful, timely feedback that enables us to improve and achieve our goals.
The students I teach
In my experience, the vast majority of GCSE English re-sit students enter the classroom feeling like a failure in English but lacking a real understanding of what ‘being better at English’ looks like and how they can achieve it. Many of the students I teach enter the re-sit classroom in September thinking that the most important elements of English are language techniques and being able to spell everything perfectly. They seem to be largely unaware of the value of their own authentic thoughts and life experiences and how crucial these are. Instead, students often arrive in the re-sit classroom attempting to follow prescribed ‘rules’ that they associate with ‘being good at English’, with little understanding of why they are doing what they are doing and how (if at all) the strategies contribute to getting better at English. Somewhere along the line, the students seem to have lost touch with what I consider to be the core aims of English language up to GCSE level: to understand and critically engage with what we read and be able to discuss it (both verbally and in writing) and to be able to express ourselves clearly (both verbally and in writing).
The early days of my re-sit teaching journey
In my first year of teaching the GCSE English language re-sit, I did what I imagine most new teachers do and I looked anywhere and everywhere for help and advice from other teachers. I was extremely fortunate to be working with two very experienced English teachers who had previously taught GCSE English for many years in secondary schools and they were so generous, with both their time and their resources. I learned a lot from them and also from the internet, spending lots of my spare time scouring different websites looking for inspiration for my lessons.
In my search, one thing I discovered that the English teaching world seemed to have in abundance, was acronyms. Acronyms for almost anything, but especially for helping students to remember language features. The most famous one, DA FOREST, seemed to me to be a great way to help students to remember eight common persuasive language features. And it was. My students would willingly participate in starter activities such as ‘who can find the most features from DA FOREST in this paragraph?’ and ‘who can write a persuasive paragraph with all eight features in?’ and so on. By Christmas, most students could readily churn out the list of eight without hesitating. But that was the problem. They could name the features and they could use them in a paragraph, but their writing wasn’t improving.
A persuasive piece encouraging people to stop smoking would likely begin with something along the lines of ‘Don’t you think it would be better to not smoke?’ or ‘A smelly, smoky cigarette sits on the side’ with no consideration for why they were using these sentences or the impact they would have on their reader. And it was my fault. I had made ticking off techniques their main objective and they complied. They were winning. But the problem was that their writing sounded, at best, forced, and at worst nonsensical. The worst offender in the DA FOREST days was probably the ‘S’. Statistics are all well and good when students are reading carefully-crafted statistics in an article written by an experienced writer, but asking re-sit students to put statistics into their writing, more often than not, resulted in sentences like ‘A recent survey of 10 people who play X-box found that 62% don’t think it leads to violence and 22% do’ as a sentence designed to strengthen their argument about a link between video games and violence in teenagers.
I was seeing similarly frustrating results when teaching analysis. I didn’t realise it at the time, but by congratulating my students for correctly identifying direct address, a rhetorical question or the rule of three, I was inadvertently facilitating a process that was resulting in the students being able to ‘feature spot’ but little more. They may have been able to track through a text and correctly label the similes, but they struggled to comment effectively on the reasons for those similes, and me asking them to seemed to cause them a lot of distress and frustration. Blank faces and responses such as ‘because it engages the reader?’ or ‘because it makes us want to read on?’ (with all the intonation of a desperate, wild guess) made me realise something really needed to change for these students. Despite what many of them believed, and what their written work may have, at times, led people to think, I knew that they were not ‘bad at English’. Their ability to analyse people, conversations and situations, their empathy, their hilarious story telling abilities and their persuasion skills (especially when it came to convincing me to end the lesson five minutes early) made me absolutely sure that they were not ‘bad at English’. They had, however, achieved a grade D in their GCSE English exams, despite, undoubtedly, the best efforts of their previous teachers for it to be a C or higher.
A time for change
After two years of trialling lots of different activities including lots borrowed, adapted and copied from kind English teachers, I knew that I needed to take a different approach if I was going to get these students to pass in a year at college, having not done so before. I knew that most could achieve better than a D within just one year of further study. And they desperately wanted to. The most common response to every anonymous post-it note survey I have ever done has always been the same. When I ask ‘what do you want to get out of your English lessons?’ almost every student writes; ‘I want to pass’. And why wouldn’t they? They want the job opportunities, they want to stop having to attend English lessons and have a free period with their friends instead, they want their parents off their backs and, more than anything, they don’t want to feel like a failure anymore. Since the start of Year 10, they have heard the same ‘motivational’ threat from their English and maths teachers, and sometimes parents too. “Get a grade 4, or you’ll be doing this again all through college.” The threat had become their reality and the shame and fear that most of them seemed to feel made teaching the re-sit a challenge. But it was a challenge that fascinated me and motivated me.
In the summer of 2017, something happened that caused me to reflect more quickly and, perhaps, more drastically than I might have had it not come about. The GCSE English language specification changed. This meant no more controlled assessments making up 40% of the end grade but, instead, two end-of-year exams. I knew this would be a great challenge for my students, many of whom had always struggled to perform in exam situations. Our manager at the time asked us, the English team, to consider whether we would like to change exam boards. I will be forever grateful that he asked us this question as it prompted our mission to carefully analyse the exam papers of all of the different boards, with our students in mind, to decide on the one that we thought had the most accessible end-point assessments for our students. After all, they could make all the progress in the world but if they didn’t improve their overall grade, most would still be devastated on results day. We knew that we only had a college year. We knew our students struggled to remember lots of facts and struggled with many aspects of exams, but especially timing. After careful consideration, we decided on one particular exam board, because the structure of the exam papers seemed like it would give our students the best possible chance of success (we didn’t realise it at the time, but the move to this board would also bring about numerous other benefits for our students). The mark allocation in the reading sections was very evenly spread, meaning that even if I heard the dreaded “I just missed one question out” from students leaving the exam hall, it was much less likely to mean game over. However, it was only when I attended my first ‘exam review’ CPD session with the exam board in 2018 that I realised just how much better I could do for my students. At the marking moderation session, we were taken through the summer exam papers and lots of students’ responses. It was only then that I saw first-hand that it was possible for students to achieve a very high grade without the mention of a single language feature (e.g. a simile) and it got me thinking: ‘What would happen if I stopped mentioning language features completely to my students?’ No more asking students to identify them or use them, no more tick-box activity starters, no more congratulating students for using a rhetorical question, even if said question served no real purpose in their writing. For three years I had witnessed students talking confidently about language and making sense, until they started to mention language features, when everything seemed to go wrong, almost as if they were trying to speak a foreign language that they hadn’t had enough exposure to to be anywhere near fluent. It was something that had always bothered me, but I had accepted that it was an essential part of GCSE English, the bread and butter of the subject. That CPD session made me re-consider. I was seeing students achieve a grade 7 without mentioning a single language feature (other than to say ‘word’, ‘phrase’ or ‘sentence’).
I began to consider what this might mean for my students. For me, one of the greatest joys of the English classroom is the opportunity that it affords teachers and students to have an open dialogue, to explore real issues and challenge each other’s thinking. I have enjoyed discovering the work of others who write about how important these discussions are in the English classroom, for example; in ‘English inside the black box’ Marshall and Wiliam say ‘talk is vital in enabling pupils to develop their ideas and thinking and so make progress’. (Ibid, p.6). I have rarely seen students more engaged than when expressing an opinion they really hold, or asking a question about a topic that they are genuinely interested in. I had always felt frustrated with the way that language features seemed to ‘kill the conversation’, so to speak, in the re-sit classroom. The reason for this is, no doubt, complex and is perhaps a discussion for another time, but the fact remains nonetheless and it was, therefore, a lightbulb moment for me to discover that I could stop using these terms that seemed, for many students, to be such a stumbling block.
After that memorable CPD session, I did not stop mentioning language features completely straight away (I was going to need to take some deep breaths before saying goodbye to my various different acronyms, all with student-friendly, vocationally- relevant examples, lovingly laminated and banded together in class sets). It was a gradual separation process that sped up as I saw the increasingly positive outcomes for my students. Where before, while analysing a piece such as Lennie James’ ‘Letter to the boy who carries a knife’, (James, 2008) my students’ first task might have been to find examples of persuasive language features, I now asked them, instead, to find at least three words or phrases that they thought would have a strong influence on somebody considering carrying a knife. I would then say things like ‘why do you think that?’ ‘I’m curious as to what makes you say that’ and ‘what do you think the difference would be if Lennie had said ‘_____’ instead of ‘______’. I recently came across a blog post written by a fellow English teacher, Kat Howard, where Kat details how she, too, moved away from lessons governed by rules and tick boxes to an approach that facilitates an open dialogue in her classroom. Kat shares some examples of questions she asks her students such as ‘How does that line work? How does that word cause us to think in a particular way? Why that word? Why that word there? Why not later?’ to encourage deeper thinking and a dialogue between teacher and students.’ (Howard, 2020). You can read Kat’s blog post here.
Like Kat, I noticed that the answers from my students were so much more intelligent, thoughtful and accurate when I stopped making language features the main focus of the lesson activities. They were engaging with text in a way I had not seen before. They were actually thinking, rather than trying to guess what answer they thought I wanted to hear. It was refreshing and rewarding and it fuelled my curiosity and my appetite for further enquiry in my teaching. I started to reflect on every aspect of my practice in a way I had not done as freely before.
The more enjoyment and success I saw from my students, the more adjustments I made to my teaching. When I taught persuasive writing, instead of saying things like ‘could you include a statistic to support that point you’ve made?’ I would say things like ‘what do you think you could say that would make people be more likely to agree with you or believe you here?’ and ‘can you think of something that you or one of your friends has experienced that would support that idea?’ I will never forget reading a paragraph written by one of my Sport students, as part of an article with the headline ‘Why I love Tattoos’ in which he wrote more fluently and persuasively than I had ever seen as he described the impact a tattoo had had on his brother, who suffered with extreme anxiety in social situations. He spoke of the change he had witnessed in his brother since he had the tattoo and it struck me that I rarely saw evidence as compelling or convincing when students had been desperately trying to generate a ‘fact’ so that they could tick the ‘F’ on their DA FOREST checklist. They could do it, they just needed to be allowed to think naturally and freely and then supported to transfer these thoughts onto paper.
So much of my practice and my approach has changed over the course of the last six years. Above all else, I always try to remember that I am teaching people, not content. When I evaluate anything in my teaching practice now I always try to ask myself questions like ‘Why am I doing this? What benefit is this approach/ activity/ resource bringing to these students? How do I know? Where are the students now and where do they want to be and how will this help them to get there? How will I know this has worked for them?
What have I learned and where might I go next?
I am now six years in to my teaching journey and I feel like I have come a long way in that time. Teaching the compulsory re-sit of GCSE English to 16-19 year olds presents a unique set of challenges, which I feel have helped me become a much better teacher than I might otherwise have been, had I been teaching a subject that students had chosen to do, or one in which they did not perceive themselves as having previously failed. I have realised how important it is to think carefully and honestly about the areas where my students are struggling and to be really open-minded about what could help them. I reflect often, and try not to be afraid to try something different if I feel the need is there. Live marking, an open dialogue with students where I help them to draw on their life experience and lots of exposure to, and discussion about, the work of other re-sit students who improved their grade, are by far my most effective teaching methods to date. I also think it is especially important to cultivate a low-stakes, fear-free environment where students feel comfortable to say what they really think. At the beginning of this piece, I talked about being an ‘advocate of critical literacy’. In the GCSE English re-sit classroom, most students’ biggest barrier to success is low motivation, often as a result of their previous educational experiences. I feel very fortunate to have discovered an exam board for GCSE English language who, like me, prioritise good understanding of what students read and clear communication, with careful consideration of the life experiences of a typical 16-year-old. Giving credit for accurate comments on ‘words’, ‘phrases’ or ‘sentences’ (regardless of whether or not they also happen to be able to say that it’s a simile) opens doors for so many more students, as does offering writing tasks that enable them to draw on their own life experiences with ease. In my role as an English teacher in the FE sector, it is my hope that by the time students leave the re-sit classroom, they feel more confident in their ability to evaluate the views and writing of others and to express their own thoughts in a way that will mean others are likely to understand and listen.
I continue to reflect on my practice regularly; I am a firm believer that there are always things that we can do to improve the experience in our classrooms. At the moment, I am focusing on two key questions. The first of these is: what else can we do to ensure that every student’s needs are met in the best possible way? Specifically, what influence might we be able to have with greater flexibility around group sizes and lesson durations? While, for many re-sit students, a class size of 15-20 is fine straight away, for some students I believe that a one-to-one approach needs to be taken first, to break down some of the barriers that otherwise hold them back. Clearly, this presents a logistical challenge but timetabling is certainly an area where I feel there is great scope to improve the experience for students who are often the hardest to reach. I am also wondering whether teaching the GCSE English language re-sit through one carefully chosen text (e.g. Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, to give just three suggestions) could have a positive influence on students’ enjoyment, motivation and progress. We all want to enjoy what we read and I feel that studying a book where they enjoy the story and can relate to the characters could help re-sit students to engage even better.
Howard, K. (2020) Acronyms and Beauty. Available at: https://saysmiss.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/acronyms-and-beauty/ ( Accessed: 6 August 2021)
James, L. (2008) ‘This is no way to be a man’, The Guardian, 8 June. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2008/jun/08/knifecrime.ukcrime?CMP=fb_gu (Accessed: 6 August 2021)
Marshall, B. and Wiliam, D. (2006) English inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the English classroom. London: Granada Learning. The Black Box Assessment for Learning series.
Kirsty teaches GCSE English Language and Functional Skills at Moulton College in Northamptonshire. She is passionate about improving the experience for post-16 learners studying English. She has led two ETF Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment (OTLA) projects, investigating strategies to improve English teaching for the learners at Moulton College. Alongside her teaching role, Kirsty works as a mentor on the OTLA programme, supporting staff in other organisations to carry out action research projects. Kirsty loves to share experiences and ideas with others. She can be contacted at Kirsty.email@example.com