As we know, levels have been consigned to the land of assessment-past. Dragging behind them, an equally rotting receptacle of wasted human endeavour, lopes their hateful, dunderheaded side-kick APP.
One of my greatest complaints about the use of the level descriptors in English has been the way that ‘reading skills’ have been defined. It is not just the infuriating nebulousness of these descriptors that has stunted KS3 English for so long; it is also the way reading and writing have been torn asunder as if they are two separate unrelated entities. Under the old system, if a student wrote a three page analytical essay on a Shakespeare play, I would assess them only on their ‘reading skills’ and not how they crafted the language of the essay. This led to the daft scenario of weeks and weeks spent teaching a text and pulling it apart, and scant seconds on how to write analytically. Worse still, was the tasteless PEE formula I would promote. At best it was a clunky, reductive way to teach students how to find a quotation and explain it. Hardly challenging.
With the chance to move beyond levels, it is time for us to reassert the importance of writing in an academic, formal style. In English, our students should aspire to the tentative voice of the literary critic and nothing less. The first port of call, then, should be to write assessment criteria that marry reading analysis with analytical writing skill.
It is important to remember that many students do not have access to this quite niche academic register outside school. I teach in a very comprehensive school; I teach a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. Even the middle-class students in my neck of the woods, a fairly large town on the south coast with no university, seem to have little exposure to this genre in their family lives. (As far as I know, I have only once taught a student at GCSE whose parent has an undergraduate qualification in English. She got an A* in English literature.) My point is that all students of all abilities benefit from being explicitly taught this style because otherwise they will not only be unable to use it, but will also be pretty unaware that such a genre of writing exists in the first place!
I have made it my mission to do so this year. I teach it through lots of modelling and scaffolding, both verbal and written, and the sustained and regular use of this resource I have shared before:
Over the year, in every year group, at every ability level, I have seen genuine improvement. Not just in the how of the written style, but crucially in the what of the ideas the students generate. The great thing is that the resource itself is becoming increasingly redundant the more students have assimilated the style. It seems that inducting the students in the written genre not only makes them better academic writers, but better academic readers too. The language of the genre seems to go hand-in-hand with the ideas of the genre, each sustaining the other. David Didau’s new book, The Secret of Literacy (brilliant, by the way), has really helped to extend my understanding of this way of thinking.
Next year, I’m hoping to raise the bar again. What follows below is a list of analytical sentence structures we are going to be working with. I will interleave them through the curriculum so that they can be re-applied in a variety of contexts. Naturally, students will not just employ these sentences in their work, they will generate their own sentences too; I am not promoting a ‘write by numbers approach’. Those below, however, will form the bedrock of the tone I am hoping that my students will eventually adopt when writing about literature.
They are magpied from a variety of places. Feel free to use them if you like. However, please remember that they are domain-specific and not really applicable to any other subject. You might need to discover your own!
1. Reader response
The reader is caught between…
The reader is caught between empathy for Lennie and disgust at the cruel world he lives in.
2. Peeling away the layers of characterisation
On the exterior____________, yet on the interior we can infer__________.
On the exterior, Shylock appears desperate for revenge against the Christians who have wronged him, yet on the interior we can infer that he is he feels a deep sense of injustice for the wrongs he has suffered.
3. Character motives
________is motivated not only by___________________ but also by _____________________________.
Macbeth is motivated not only by his ambition to become king, but also by his desire to please Lady Macbeth.
4. Character development
By the close of the play/poem/novel the once _____________ has developed into_______________________ .
By the close of the poem, the once fearsome terrorist has developed into a polite and humble child who is willing to remove his shoes.
5. Reader positioning
(The writer) positions the reader/audience in favour of /against _____ by __________________________________________ .
Priestley positions the audience against Mr Birling by revealing his buffoonery in the early scenes.
6. First impressions
Our first impressions of ___________________________________ . (x3)
Our first impressions of the Birling family are that they are rich, arrogant and ‘pleased with themselves’.
7. Weighing up the importance
Even though/although ________________________________, ________________________________________.
Even though Curley’s Wife behaves at times like a cruel temptress, by the end of the novel we realise that she is a victim of a harsh, misogynist world.
8. Deepening analysis
At first glance ________________________________; however, on closer inspection ______________________________.
At first glance the family appear to be respectable members of society; however, on closer inspection, we can already sense the rift between father and son.
9. Identifying a common thread
Throughout the novel/poem/play ______________________________________________________________.
Throughout the poem, the poet explores the pain of unrequited love in a variety of ways.
10. Identifying the main thing
The most important word/sentence/idea/chapter/moment is _________________ because ________________________.
The most important word from this line is ‘top’ because it emphasises the superiority of the bird.
11. Close language analysis
Here, _________employs the word/phrase ‘__________’ to suggest/imply/reinforce ____________________________.
Here, the Inspector employs the phrase ‘millions and millions’ to reinforce the idea that Eva Smith represents many other working-class, Edwardian girls.
12. Exemplifying an idea through a character/setting/event
__________ reveals her/his belief in _____through her/his description of______________________________________.
Stevie Smith reveals her belief in the cyclical nature of war through her description of the ‘ebbing tide of battle’.
13. Contrasting alternative viewpoints
Some readers might propose that__________________; other readers, however, might argue________________________.
Some readers might propose that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock was cruel and unfair; other readers, however, might argue that Shakespeare was simply reflecting the views of the society he lived in.
14. Noting subtleties
Here, the writer cleverly________________________________________________________.
Here, Ted Hughes cleverly employs the gruesome image of a dying hare to remind the reader once again of the way war targets the innocent.
15. Proposing a tentative idea
Perhaps, (writer’s name) was hinting that ______________________________________________________.
Perhaps Steinbeck was hinting that human beings are no different from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Although both _______________________________________, they ______________________________.
Although both writers explore the idea of love, they express their ideas in very different ways.
Both ______________ and ______________share ____________________________________________________.
Both Beatrice and Shylock share feelings of anger and frustration.
There are countless other sentence structures we could work with too. I think that less is more when it comes to this kind of thing. If we throw too much at them, they will catch less than we hope. Hence why these need to be introduced slowly, carefully and in context. Regular repetition too will be vital to their success.