Combining GCSE Preparation with Real Education

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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

GCSEs are fiddly. There’s no way around it. They contain multiple question types which demand slightly different things of pupils, and they are marked according to rigid criteria, often by examiners who lack the deep subject knowledge to make nuanced judgements. This means that knowledgeable and able pupils can lose marks unless they have been trained to serve up ‘what the examiner wants’.

Therefore, although it is not the same thing as education, schools cannot avoid doing test practice. And because it must be done, we need to think about ways of making this test practice as educational as possible. We need to make the test practice as coherent as possible, and pay as much attention as possible to building cultural capital that is retained in long-term memory, even while we are addressing the dreary and anti-educational issue of ‘what the examiner wants you to do in paper 1 question 3’.

If we can crack this issue, we can make GCSE preparation more than just a joyless, soul-destroying exercise in ticking the exam board’s boxes.

Let’s take a look at GCSE English language. However much I deplore the very existence of this non-subject, it’s part of our current educational reality, and so it must be addressed. How might we prepare our pupils, for example, for GCSE English language paper 1 section A? In this part of the exam, candidates are required to read an extract from 20th or 21st century fiction and answer a series of question types which move from fundamental understanding of content to critical evaluation of literary techniques.

The exam boards provide anthologies of extracts for practising these question types, but I would advise English teachers not to use these, because they are not created with any coherent knowledge goal in mind. If we want to make the best use of the time spent doing test practice for GCSE English language, we need to come up with our own anthologies so that we will not simply be reading any old thing in order to ‘practise comprehension’.

Let’s look at some specific examples. If you are studying The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for English literature, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from gothic fiction, such Frankenstein, Dracula and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. If you are studying An Inspector Calls, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from other twentieth century socialist writers, such as John Steinbeck and George Orwell. Or you could gather together some Edwardian fiction, such as E M Forster, to give a better understanding of the time at which the play is set.

The same principle can be applied to GCSE English language paper 2 section A. The two linked non-fiction texts you use could be related to the literature you are studying. I recently pulled together a resource pack for Inspiration Trust English teachers focused on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, using a piece of 21st century journalism looking at the history of the novel’s reception, along with a contemporary review of the novel from the 19th century. These two non-fiction texts contain a wealth of knowledge and vocabulary which has intrinsic value. They are actually worth studying for their own sake.

If you’re going to use rich, satisfying and challenging texts for the purposes of GCSE test practice, then you will need to teach these texts explicitly. You’ll need to leave behind the idea that each lesson can be a mini-mock, and explain key ideas and words to pupils before they attempt the questions. They’ll still be getting familiar with ‘what the examiner wants’, but they’ll actually be learning something into the bargain, instead of muddling their way through and retaining nothing in long-term memory due to cognitive overload.

Once you start thinking about it, there are so many possibilities for using test practice as an opportunity for building rich knowledge and vocabulary and enhancing pupils’ study of literature. So take the leap and abandon the exam board anthologies, which are based on the false notion that it doesn’t matter what material you use for practising the generic skill of comprehension. Comprehension is primarily based on knowledge and vocabulary, and we must not waste our time delivering lessons that are not focused on building retention of these in long-term memory.

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Primary Literature: Telling Stories

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Boy Reading (1843) by Albert Tikos (1815-1845)

I’m currently working with primary teachers across the Inspiration Trust to develop a content-focused approach to literature. I spoke to the whole primary staff about this project back in October – you can read my talk here. In this post, I’ll be looking at why a content-focused approach is more accessible, more equitable, more effective, and more joyful.

But firstly, what do I mean by content-focused literature teaching? Very briefly, I mean teaching that has as its goal the retention in long term memory of the content of literature: its plots, characters and themes. This goal is distinct from the goal of practising decoding to fluency, which is of course a necessary part of primary education (and sometimes of secondary too). It is also distinct from the goal of practising generalised ‘comprehension skills’ such as inference and prediction. I’ll argue later that a focus on content actually enables better inference and prediction anyway.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is accessible

A strong focus on the plots, characters and themes of literature is more accessible because fundamentally, it is about knowing the story well. Everything flows from this. Stories are the most memorable and interesting thing, for everybody. As Daniel Willingham has pointed out (in Why Don’t Students Like School), the human brain seems to be set up specially for the retention of stories. They sink in and they stay in the mind more easily than anything else.

When the teacher is focused on the story as they teach literature, she is using the most powerful and the most accessible tool for transferring knowledge to their pupils, whatever their ability level. When the teacher reads the story out loud to the class and explains it to them, she opens up new worlds to pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is equitable

This follows naturally from accessibility. A teacher-led lesson focused on literary content allows the whole class to share in the story. The whole class is building cultural capital. The whole class is building shared meanings that will stand them in good stead as they mature and encounter more sophisticated texts. No one is left behind.

This is always the paradox: when we insist upon differentiation, we embed disadvantage and make our education system less equitable. When we insist that everyone in the class listens and learns the same material, we reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is effective

When the focus is squarely on the content of literature, children’s knowledge and vocabulary will grow, and this is the primary means by which comprehension can be improved. While there is some benefit in general strategies for improving comprehension, they are, as Willingham points out here, easily learned and do not require much practice. The vast majority of our ability to comprehend is based upon what we have stored firmly in our long term memories. So focusing on this in our primary curriculum is the best way to ensure success in the short and the long term. It will lead to better SATs results, but more importantly, it will lay firm foundations for a lifetime of better understanding and ever increasing knowledge.

Our brains, tuned as they are to stories, naturally infer and predict, and their ability to do this accurately is primarily based on how much knowledge is stored in long term memory. The conclusion is obvious. If we want our pupils to be able to infer and predict effectively, we must give them more knowledge.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is joyful

If we want to inoculate our pupils against literature, the best way to do this is to turn every story into a vehicle for practising comprehension strategies or doing SATs test preparation. But when we forget all that dry, dull and empty formalism, we find that there is a wealth of fascinating stories that every pupil can enjoy. Content-focused primary literature teaching becomes a journey of discovery which includes everybody in the class, even the teacher. And you get better SATs results into the bargain.

English Language: The Vampire Subject

2000px-Little-vampire.svgMichael Fordham has already written eloquently about how English, as a whole, is a Frankenstein subject, a monster composed of a myriad of vastly different parts artificially stitched together. Within that jumble of odd parts, there are real academic disciplines that can be separated out. The key academic discipline, for the purposes of general education, is the study of literature.

By studying literature, our pupils have their minds opened upon other worlds; they encounter the great narratives that have shaped human thought and culture down the centuries; they gain cultural capital that will enable them to take part in educated reading and conversation for the rest of their lives. Studying literature is a hugely enriching part of every child’s education, and no one should be denied this opportunity.

But there is another GCSE which everyone takes: English language. What knowledge, precisely, does this test? In fact, it does not test anything in particular. It involves being given a more less random selection of extracts and writing tasks, that are supposed to be a test of the pupils’ general ability to read and write.

This might seem like a reasonable idea. Surely we want to know something about whether pupils are able to read with understanding and write accurately? Well, yes, but here’s the problem: once you get beyond the basics of decoding (in reading), and spelling and grammar (in writing), there’s no such thing as general reading and writing ability. Your ability to read and write well about any topic depends upon specific knowledge and vocabulary about that topic. Whatever topic happens to come up in the English language exam will be more accessible to those who happen to have more knowledge about that topic. General tests of reading and writing are always, inherently, unfair, because they can never take this into account.

So English language is a non-subject. If we want to find out whether pupils can read with understanding and write accurately, there is no reason why this should not be done through the vehicle of all the actual subjects that have real, specific substance. If we care about accurate writing and intelligent reading, then we need to make sure the GCSEs in literature, history, geography and science test these things. They can test them much more fairly than the English language exam, because the test will be based upon a specific body of knowledge which pupils are supposed to have mastered. No one will randomly gain an advantage because the test is based on randomly selected knowledge.

The Key Stage 2 Reading SATs suffer from exactly the same problem. They test reading in a general way, instead of basing the test upon specific knowledge which pupils are supposed to have mastered. Therefore, they are inherently unjust.

As well as the inherent unfairness of general tests in reading and writing, their existence and importance creates serious curricular misunderstandings. When high stakes tests are based around general reading, schools tend to spend lots of time teaching general reading, with endless comprehension worksheets and test drill. This has been happening in America for many years, where a very high stakes annual test of reading has led to a hollowing out of the curriculum, with the abandonment of real academic subjects which contain real substantive knowledge in favour of tedious lessons in how to ‘find the main idea’ in random bits and bobs of text. E D Hirsch has pointed out that these reading tests, which he previously supported, have had such a deleterious effect on the curriculum, that they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’ (see Chapter One of Why Knowledge Matters).

So as well as being a non-subject, English language (or English language arts, as it is called in the USA) is a vampire subject: it sucks the life out of the curriculum, emptying it of specific content in favour of teaching generic comprehension skills that don’t even exist, because comprehension is always based upon specific knowledge, and generic writing skills that don’t exist, because good writing is also based upon specific knowledge of the topic about which you are writing.

It doesn’t seem likely that the curse of general reading and writing tests is likely to be lifted any time soon, so we have to make the best of this bad situation. For a start, we could scrap most of the curriculum time currently devoted to the non-subject of English language and spend that time teaching pupils a meaningful body of knowledge within proper academic disciplines. If we want them to read and write well, we need to stop doing generic lessons on reading and writing, and do more and more on the rich knowledge and vocabulary that will actually enable good reading and writing. We’ll need a little exam drill in the final run up to GCSEs, because of their fiddly nature, but really, there shouldn’t be much need for English language at all once the basics of decoding (in reading) and spelling and grammar (in writing) are in place. There are effective programmes already in existence to train pupils in those areas, such as Expressive Writing. Implementing those will mean that there should be very little need for any other specific English language lessons at all, so we will be free to teach pupils specific, interesting, coherent content instead.

(Image from Wikimedia).

Not All Reading Is Equal

We often hear about how important it is for children to develop a love of reading. But like so many statements about education, a vital ingredient is missing from this apparently laudable aspiration. It is comparable to bland proclamations that children should learn to be creative. What is missing is specific content.

Creating what? Reading what?

There are many things which I would not want my pupils to read. Reading is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. And the end is knowledge.

There are many kinds of knowledge which reading can bring, which are difficult to access in other ways. Great literature brings knowledge about the fundamental questions of human existence. Historical writing, scientific writing, philosophical writing and even journalism can carry new insights into the nature of the universe and humanity’s place within it. A fluent reader can gain access to thought that will open her mind and raise her aspirations. But she can also gain access to fake news and poisonous propaganda. Reading can poison the mind as well as nourishing it.

There is nothing intrinsically good about reading. It depends what you are reading, and it depends on how accurately you can interpret it.

Of course we want all our pupils to be able to decode fluently. But beyond this, we must think about how we nourish their thinking so that they can use this wonderful opportunity to expand their minds, not to poison or pollute them. A regular diet of knowledge will give them a taste for reality, so that they are increasingly able to discriminate between different authors, and reject what is false.

Allowing Our Pupils to Listen

Man_inserting_earplugsDavid Didau has been at it again, slaying educational sacred cows . . . he has argued that it is not beneficial to require pupils to follow along when reading out loud to them, because it overloads their working memory by asking them to do two things which they cannot in fact do simultaneously.

This is a great example of how Didau reexamines our common teaching practices from first principles. The first principles in this case are:

  1. Working memory is extremely limited.
  2. No-one can multitask.
  3. Reading means hearing, either mentally or out loud.

Didau’s argument is that when we read silently, as pupils must do if they are actually to be following along, we are actually ‘hearing’ the words in our thoughts. To hear them properly, we must block out the voice of the person who is reading aloud to us, because we can’t focus on both at once. So when it appears that pupils are following along well, what they are actually doing is successfully blocking out our voice and reading the text themselves, with the additional mental burden of having to check periodically that they are at the same place as we are in the text. They can manage to do this if they are confident readers, but if they are not so confident, they are likely to end up either failing to follow and just listening, or getting in a hopeless muddle between trying unsuccessfully to follow and also half listening to the person reading aloud.

I’m not the only one of Didau’s readers who reacted against these conclusions when I first read his blog post. It’s worth reading the comments as well as the post to see how the discussion developed over there. I was going to comment, but I had so much to say, I thought I’d better write my own blog post, working through the objections that occurred to me.

1. Following along builds vocabulary and improves comprehension

It may seem that weaker readers need to listen and follow along, because we want them to be connecting the sound of the word with the word on the page, and building up their familiarity with the appearance of a wider range of vocabulary than they are capable of reading independently.

But this depends upon the fallacious idea that reading is a visual activity, when it is in fact aural. If we want weaker readers to be able to comprehend a larger vocabulary on the page, we need to give them the space to do one thing at a time. They can focus all their attention on listening to begin with, and later they can be given time to re-read the text in silence. Having already encountered the new vocabulary aurally, they are more likely to be able to decode it when reading the text themselves.

It’s not the following along which improves understanding for weaker readers, it’s the listening. And if we really want them to listen, we shouldn’t require them to follow along.

2. Following along ensures pupils are paying attention

We have to ask here, paying attention to what? Pupils cannot be paying attention to the spoken voice and reading simultaneously, so they must be doing one or the other, or a more or less muddled mixture of the two.

I’ve often asked pupils, “What’s the next word?” if I think they are not following along. I’ve expended a fair amount of effort monitoring this, because I want to insist that everyone is paying attention. But there are other ways of doing this, if we are not requiring pupils to follow along. We can ask them a quick comprehension question about what we have just read to them, for example. This is actually a more sophisticated way of monitoring attention than the mechanical focus on whether the are on the right line or the right page.

3. Pupils need to follow along so they can annotate

No, they don’t. If we are going to study a text in depth, we can begin by reading it aloud without following along, then require pupils to re-read it in silence, then go through it together as a class, discussing it in detail and annotating it. Let’s just do one thing at a time!

4. It’s the only way I can make sure they read

But following along doesn’t actually make sure they read. If they are strong readers, this isn’t an issue anyway, and if they are weak readers, they will be unable to block out your voice and concentrate on decoding, so they will end up in a muddle.

5. I prefer to follow along, so why shouldn’t my pupils be allowed to?

This is an interesting one. I must admit that when I want to study something in depth, I don’t like just listening to someone read without the anchor of the text in front of me. But what am I actually doing when I have the text there? In fact, as an advanced reader, I am impatient to begin reading the text independently and figuring it out for myself. So this actually illustrates the main point. I want to have the text in front of me because I don’t want to listen. If I’m going to listen properly, I’d better not be looking at it!

Conclusion: let them hear!

I would be very interested in further objections and counter arguments, but I can’t think of any which refute the fundamental principle that if we want to do things properly, we need to do them one at a time, and following along requires pupils to do two things simultaneously.

This is not an argument against reading out loud. Far from it: it’s a principle which gives reading out loud its proper place, without muddling it with other practices, which are also very beneficial, but need to be separated from just listening to the text.

If we allow our pupils just to listen, they can really, really listen, as I used to listen to my father when he read stories to me as a child. The main reason I have a wide vocabulary is that I began by listening to him. The main reason so many of our pupils have lower vocabularies is because they have not been given such opportunities really to listen to the voices of articulate adults.

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair

roger-moore

Should pupils be taught who this man is? Maybe . . .

General reading tests are always unfair because there is no such thing as general reading skill. Every text will be much clearer to those who have relevant background knowledge. Whatever text you choose, you will favour those pupils who know something about its topic beforehand. The test will therefore not be fair, because it will privilege those who just happen to know something about that subject.

The idea that you can create a general reading test which will fairly assess reading ability across the school population is based upon a false notion of what reading entails. Once you have mastered decoding, the most important factor is knowledge. You could be brilliant at reading texts about football, but hopeless at reading texts about politics.

E D Hirsch describes how several recent studies have conclusively shown that background knowledge is the number one factor in reading ability, trumping academic ability and IQ in pupils, and complexity in texts. In 1998 the Recht-Leslie study showed that ‘poor’ readers could read well when they were familiar with the topic, which was baseball. They ‘illustrated the general principle: when a topic is familiar, “poor” readers become “good” readers; moreover, when a topic is unfamiliar, normally better readers lose their advantage’ (Why Knowledge Matters, p88). In 1999 Schneider et al proved the same point, but with IQ, while in 2011 Arya et al showed that text complexity was relatively unimportant compared to domain knowledge (see Hirsch, p88-89). These three studies show that if you know about something, you will be a good reader of texts concerning that topic.

Now consider what happens in the English language GCSE, as currently constituted. It is entirely ‘unseen’, so specific preparation of knowledge is impossible. The reading texts could be about anything. Let’s say the examination board selects a text about spies. Some pupils will know a lot about spies. Some may even be spy geeks. Others will have no interest in the topic, and will not have developed much domain knowledge. The English teacher may have spent one or two lessons doing some reading about espionage and discussing the topic, or they may not. We can hardly blame them if they haven’t, as they had no idea that this topic, among the thousands of possibilities, would come up in the examination. The spy geeks will ace that test, while others’ performance will be based mostly on the random criterion of how much they happen to know about spies.

The pupils who do well will be congratulated on their performance, but to a large extent, they just got lucky. The English teachers may even be congratulated if they happened to be teaching a large number of spy geeks. They may even get a pay rise or promotion based on this coincidence.

This is completely unjust, both to pupils and to teachers. General examinations given to the whole population should always be based on specified content. The more specific the content is, the fairer the examination will be, as it will enable all pupils to master that knowledge, and help all teachers to teach it effectively. As well as being fairer, only testing specific topics would promote education as the transmission of knowledge, rather than the development of mythical generic skills.

Because of the absence of specific content, preparation for general reading tests ends up being largely a process of tedious drills in how to serve up to the examiner what they are looking for. ‘Make sure you mention structure’, advise the English teachers, or ‘look out for similes and metaphors, and make sure you comment on them.’ How dull, compared to the richness and variety of content on which we could be focusing. But such a box-ticking approach seems inevitable when faced with general reading tests, because the knowledge required has not been specified in advance.

But we must not lose hope. We must make things better despite the unfair assessment system which currently exists, and we must work to persuade policy makers that fairness and the promotion of knowledge depend upon making tests as specific as possible.

How can schools best cope with the situation until such a time as assessment policy catches up with the findings of cognitive psychology?

The answer must lie in giving as much coherent knowledge as possible to pupils, especially in the earlier years, and in spending the minimum amount of time on tedious drills in examination skills. We can also make sure that any internal tests which we set are based on specific content which pupils are expected to master.

Instruction in how to give the examiner what they want should be left to the months immediately prior to the exam. The rest of schooling should be devoted to making pupils as knowledgeable as possible, because if we want our pupils to be creative and to think critically, if we want them to read well and write well, it is knowledge which counts.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

Comprehension Worksh**ts

Learning to Love Literature

That hotel, which is pure surface, apparently.

In Seven Myths, Daisy Christodoulou rightly identifies the philosophy underlying progressivism as postmodernism, because of its rejection of truth, which then leads to a refusal to pass on definite knowledge, seeing in this merely the imposition of one person’s beliefs upon another. Thus the central purpose of education, which as Chesterton points out, is only ‘truth in a state of transmission’, is lost.

But there is another aspect of postmodernism which poisons education: the declaration that there is no depth, only surface, as in Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Staying on the surface means gazing at the forms of literature, and declining to enter into its deeper meaning. Indeed, English undergraduates are taught to reject the whole concept of deeper meaning which can appeal across ages and generations as a humanist myth that has been disproved by the more advanced thinking of the cultural materialists. Materialism denies the soul, and therefore denies the existence of any transhistorical human nature to which great writers could appeal across the centuries. We are left only with shifting surfaces, supplemented by reductionist sociological readings that turn literature into a mere historical artefact, and usually one which supports the evil oppressors.

Thus the very existence of a deeper content to literature is systematically attacked by university English departments, and we are left with two things: form, and sub-Marxist historical context. Two boxes which GCSE and A level examiners are endlessly ticking. There isn’t any message. Or if there is, the medium is the message. Or the message is the same message over and over again: that everything is written to support the powerful and crush the poor.

How excruciatingly dull and lifeless.

All my teaching career, I’ve battled with the expectation to place form and context so prominently, when what I really want to talk about is content. Does anyone read anything because they want to admire its form or comment on how it relates to economic arrangements? Or do we read things because we’re interested in their subject – I mean their human subject? Of course there is a connection between the form, context and content, and for the fullest understanding of meaning, we need a sensitivity to the forms of literature as well as its living, human context, but the form is never an end in itself and the artwork can never be reduced to historical documentation. The form is merely a means by which the artist communicates. The artist wishes to communicate something to the reader. He is an artist because he is highly skilled at shaping language to communicate. What he communicates can have multiple meanings, layers of meaning, certainly, but meaning there is, and meaning is what the reader is looking for.

Meaning at its highest level is significance: philosophical significance, moral significance, human significance. The meanings of great literature are endless and inexhaustible. That’s why people keep reading it generation after generation. They don’t keep reading it so they can say, “Wow, look how he used personification there” or make erudite comments on how the base has shaped the superstructure. They read it for meaning, deep meaning which changes their lives.

That’s where the love of reading comes from. And that’s why we so often kill it in schools. David Didau has written about this recently, inspired by a controversial lecture from the ever interesting Frank Furedi. One of the points David considered was whether we do not think enough about what pupils are reading, because we are too concerned about how they learn to read. This is so crucial. In every area of the curriculum, but especially in the arts and humanities, the how has replaced the what. Form has replaced content: this is the skills agenda. It is one of the progressive mantras, and it is thoroughly postmodern. It doesn’t matter what you read. What matters is that you develop skills of literary and contextual analysis, and you can do that with any material, so the argument goes.

It’s certainly true that you can analyse anything, even the most trivial products of popular culture. George Orwell was one of the first to do this, with his essays on seaside postcards. These artefacts have an interest for their cultural meaning. But they are not of interest in themselves. They do not have the intrinsic interest of great literature. They do not have a meaning which can appeal across the generations, because it is deep enough to speak to any human soul. When we favour form over content, analysis over meaning, context over artwork, we take the power out of the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the scholar and the critic. Thus does literature crumble into dust; thus does it turn into a dead butterfly pinned to the page.

The life of literature is in its meaning. That’s why we love it, if we love it at all. Everyone who has fallen in love with literature will say that it has changed their life. And they’ll never say it changed their life because of the subtle use of a concluding couplet or the skilful deployment of metaphor. Those techniques may have helped it to have the impact it did. But it was never the artist’s intention that we should stop at the surface and never enter the depth.

How are we to lead our pupils into these depths, so that they can discover the joy of reading? Firstly, we need to do a lot of reading great stories out loud, from a young age. Right from the start, children can start meeting Goldilocks and Robin Hood and St George and King Arthur and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and Ebenezer Scrooge. Exposure to a wide range of great stories from a young age will open their minds to all the wonderful experiences of literature. They should be listening to stories that are well beyond their ability to read, because it gives them a glimpse of the exciting territory that lies ahead once they have mastered that skill.

Secondly, we need to do a lot of memorisation, and this can begin even before children can read. Memorisation can be done entirely orally, and it gives possession of beautiful and meaningful words to the child. They can own them, and turn them around in their heads, speak them loud and soft, taste them in a way that cannot be achieved without this ancient, wise practice of committing to heart.

There it is. Simple. At primary school, alongside thorough training in the skills of decoding, lots of reading out loud and lots of memorising. And there’s no reason not to continue sharing stories and committing poetry to heart at secondary school.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, Or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

(Image from Wikimedia).