Round and round we go: teaching English in spirals

spacing(1)Images: @jasonramasami

I have always struggled with setting learning objectives for my English lessons. At times they seem useful, at other times not. When they allow me to zoom in on disconnected, isolated knowledge and skill, such as grammatical structures or punctuation rules, they give clarity and emphasis to planning. Yet when I am teaching a chapter of a novel, a complete poem or a scene from a play – or teaching students to write an extended text – they fail to capture the breadth of what I would like my students to learn. More often than not I will stick to a title: ‘Chapter 2 of Of Mice and Men’, for instance.

The reason is that literary texts require immersion. For any lesson on a text or part of a text, I usually like my students to know and think about some or all of the following:

• The meaning of any new vocabulary.
• The events unfolding.
• The characterisation.
• How the writer makes use of literary devices.
• The themes, ideas, feelings and beliefs that can be inferred from textual details.
• The authorial viewpoint in light of the text’s context.
• etc.

The last four examples always lend themselves to debate and interpretation – which is why I believe that discussion, particularly at a whole-class level, is so central to English pedagogy. It is also hard to separate the above list into discrete skill sets without losing sense of the richness of the living, breathing text at hand.

Another flaw with learning objectives lies in the way that we assume that if the child has mastered the content on the day, they have learnt it. The problem here, of course, is forgetting. Without some form of repetition it is very possible that this performance during the lesson will not lead to meaningful changes in what a child knows and can do. An objective will normally need to span far beyond one lesson to be of any genuine use.

At Key Stage 3 we have adopted a theme-based curriculum that dips into high-quality prose, poetry and drama in a spiralling pattern over the year. This term it is ‘Inequality’ for Y9 who will be reading Of Mice and Men, a range of political poetry, studying rhetoric in a range of speeches, and writing a comparative essay and a speech. This circular design, however, will be accompanied by a linear structure. This takes the form of two-weekly decontextualized grammar lessons which will allow us to home-in on and practice the essential ‘skinny parts’ (as Doug Lemov calls them) of writing technique, away from the clamour of narrative and ideas.

At the heart of English teaching lies a problem. How do we tie everything together? How do we get our students to see that literature is a beautiful, throbbing nexus not a set of unrelated texts? How do we help students to realise that their reading should inform their writing and vice-versa? How do we ensure that grammar knowledge is reinforced and practised in the context of ‘real’ writing? How do we keep multiple plates spinning at once so that all that is to be learnt is informed by all that has been learnt?

Ideas coming from cognitive psychology are really useful here. For me, the most important are:

• Spacing – the importance of returning back to knowledge and skill in spaced intervals.
• Interleaving – teaching topics side-by-side to improve retention and possibly the transfer of knowledge to new contexts.
• Retrieval practice (the ‘testing effect’) – that we improve our memory by using our memory… most especially at the point of forgetting.

interleaving

But how should these laboratory findings look in practice? I have deep misgivings – based on hunch I must admit – about a crude scientific application of these insights to scheme-of-work and curriculum planning. I prefer to think of them as ways to subtly enhance our existing pedagogy and curriculum planning.

I would like to return to the spiral metaphor again here. On each cycle, new knowledge – be it a new poem, new word, new grammatical rule – can be fed into the class’ existing body of knowledge, enriching and deepening it before the next circulation. Each time we go forward this new knowledge is deliberately linked to what they already know. This is doubly useful: the old material receives the revision and repetition necessary for consolidation in memory, yet this material also gives us a foundation upon which to construct new knowledge and skill.

The process should be both organic and structured.

So in practical terms, how might this look in the classroom?

 Explain new knowledge through analogy to prior learning. Introduce Shylock in comparison to anther racially disabused character. Crooks, perhaps. Or craftily return to key themes – power, gender, inequality – in every new text we teach. It is about creating an interweaving narrative that teacher and student can constantly dip in and out of.

Always build new knowledge into regular classroom dialogue. Once we have taught students word-classes, for example, we should never accept a comment like, “The word ‘gloomy’ gives me the sense that something bad is about to occur.” We should insist that they say “the adjective ‘gloomy’” instead.

Include regular memory practice. This could be in the form of quizzes, games or homework tasks. The important factors are that students must be compelled to use their memories rather than to reread their notes, and that they must be regularly expected to refer ever-backwards: to last lesson, last week, last term or even last year. I have written about memory platforms previously.

Pepper classroom discussions with memory questions. Which character from Much Ado About Nothing does he remind you of? Is this sentence written in the active or passive voice? Who presents the most optimistic vision of the future – Steinbeck or Priestley?

Redraft regularly. This allows students to revisit, revise and hone their work regularly; it also provides a useful chance to consolidate subject content. I have written about redrafting strategies and benefits here.

Provide an end-of-year goal that brings everything together. This might be a test or an exam covering all the content from the past year. Our year 9s will be completing a discursive essay on a philosophical theme or question of choice. This will be assessed primarily on the quality of written expression, yet for inspiration and examples they will draw on the literature they have covered through the year. The brainchild of our head of KS3 Jo Grimwood, this builds natural repetition and cohesion into curriculum planning.

*

So that students have the chance to gain, retain, link-back and transfer-forward knowledge and skills, the past should be constantly and deliberately kept alive in English lessons. With end of course English GCSE exams on the near horizon such structured immersion might just help students avoid potential catastrophe by helping them to manage much of their revision as they go. Whether we like it or not, fostering the retention of knowledge will become ever more important to English teaching.

retrieval

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10 thoughts on “Round and round we go: teaching English in spirals

    • Thanks for commenting. I find that planning by questions is useful when students already have a solid grasp of the subject material and I want them to explore deeper ideas and connections. However, my concern is that questions can sometimes presuppose knowledge. I find it useful to plan in terms of both answers and questions. Answers provide new knowledge, questions promote a finer understanding of this knowledge through inquiry.

      It’s not one or the other for me. It’s both.

  1. Regarding your opening: what a relief! I thought it was just me! Yes, I can compartmentalise little chunks of skills into statements that sit neatly on the top line of a page…. But yes, so many English skills are interconnected, interrelated, cyclical and cumulative. This is also why I have a problem with APP. You can’t just tick off a skill as though it’s a rite of passage, never to be relived but always remaining in the memory.

  2. This is such a common trend in classrooms. Even though skills are built upon each other every year I always find myself going back to the basics and working in a circle to help my students understand. I enjoy your suggestions on how to help this in the classroom and look forward to trying them for myself

  3. I refer to your section on ‘Always build new knowledge into regular classroom dialogue’.
    From a Teaching Assistants’ point of view, I believe that we should all be repeating and emphasising the word classes of new vocabulary when building dialogue in the classroom. This will be a practise that I will endeavour to adopt and try to break the old habit of referring to verbs, adverbs etc simply as ‘words’ . Thank you Andy for your post

  4. As an A level English student I found this very interesting to read. I’m currently studying Wuthering Heights and I find that the lessons I learn the most from are the ones where we stick to one specific objective, such as ‘looking at Lockwood as a narrator’. Therefore we can understand thoroughly and debate certain ideas, and then we can use this knowledge in the next lesson where we could be looking at ‘setting’. This means we are constantly building on our knowledge and refreshing our memory, whilst comparing and contrasting ideas throughout.

    • Many thanks for your comment. It is great to hear a student’s perspective on an education blog. Your point about a close, focused objective is a good one. Certainly, I would find ‘Lockwood as a narrator’ a reasonable objective if the class have completed the novel or read a good part of it. That way we could chart his progression as a narrator as the novel progresses. If, however, our focus on Bronte’s narrative framing was limited only to one chapter it would be hard to capture the breadth and subtly of it -this can sometimes be the problem with ‘objective-driven’ teaching. It is clear to me from your comments, though, that you are experiencing careful and deft English teaching. As you say, once this topic has been introduced it must be returned too and built upon during the class’ reading of the novel. Thanks for commenting – and do comment again when you have the time. A fresh perspective helps us all to refine our thinking and subsequent teaching.

      • I agree, only looking at one chapter can be tricky. We are expected to read the texts in our own time, so that we come to the lessons ready to discuss ideas and understand the tasks that are set. Once we have grasped the text as a whole, we then start to look at specific chapters of the text, this is when objectives become tricky like you have previously said. But, because we have studied the novel as a whole, we have a greater understanding of the text as we know the outcome and usually know certain things to look out for, such as when the narrator is being unreliable, reoccurring symbolism or certain language choices. It is in these lessons where we have an objective that lasts a week or more, such as ‘be able to answer a question about language in chapter 3’. Although this isn’t a very specific objective, it does help, as sometimes I find myself thinking ‘why are we doing this again?’. I think students need to have something to aim for as they will know exactly what they will be doing with the information they’re receiving and the knowledge they’re gaining!

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