This term we’ve been preparing our Y11s for the second round of mock exams. We do Paper 1 Lit and Lang before Christmas and both Paper 2s around Feb/March. This works for us as a way to structure pupils’ revision but more importantly (and I strongly believe this is of massive importance) it eases teacher workload.
So, this term has been all about Paper 2, arguably the hardest of the two language exams. Why? Twice the reading in the same amount of time and no choice of tasks for Q5. After having read a pair of texts about such varied issues as festivals (interesting) and snow (less interesting) pupils then have to form an opinion on the issue, an issue which most or many 16 year olds may never have considered before.
Now I don’t think this is a bad thing, not at all. The enormous variety of possible topics allows for many opportunities to provide our pupils with a breadth of reading material over the course of the curriculum and build up their cultural capital. I enjoy teaching paper 2 but it does have its challenges.
Like all English leaders, I spent the days following results day last year using AQA’s ERA tool to pore over the areas in which our pupils achieved well and those in which they needed more help. The pattern was clear, and not unexpected; Paper 2 writing was the section of the exam in which our students, (91% of whom are EAL) struggled the most. So what have we been doing to tackle this?
Firstly, I am a firm believer in empowering teachers with confidence and subject knowledge through in-house CPD ( I’ve blogged about this here) so our department meetings this term have been dedicated to Paper 2 Writing tasks. I have asked those teachers in my team who have a talent for writing to set tasks in meetings, talk us through how they would plan/teach this task and then we all have a go. In the time we have we often only write a couple of paragraphs but we then share these with each other, in a totally supportive environment, and someone types them up so we all have a copy of what everyone has written. These models are then shared in class with pupils. So far, pupils have responded positively to models written by the English department as we share the different approaches we’d take to the question and acknowledge the challenges we face when attempting the questions. Some of us are not naturally gifted writers and the pupils appreciate that we don’t expect them to be either.
One of the biggest challenges our pupils face is knowing where to start with the writing tasks. They struggle to form opinions on topics about which they care very little and they don’t read enough to know that articles do not start with the phrase “I agree with this statement because…” We have very high expectations of all our pupils and the fact that the overwhelming majority of them speak English as a second language, or are Pupil Premium is never used an excuse to explain away any underperformance. These challenges are barriers which we all climb over together. However, this does not mean we don’t need to give pupils a great deal of support and scaffolding to help them climb over those barriers.
In a recent CPD meeting we shared the idea of starting the writing tasks with a reference to a recent news event. For example, an article on advising young people to take care of the environment may being with ‘You may have seen the news coverage recently of the devastating forest fires in California”. I found this useful so I decided to develop it further for my grade 3-4 pupils in intervention. We came up with the following structure for writing introductions:
- Reference to a recent news event (doesnt have to be real but should be realistic!)
- A rhetorical question or a statistic
- An emotive statement of intent/call for action
The introduction will look something like this:
Q: “The internet causes more harm than good. It is the worst invention in human history.” Write a speech for Parliament in which you argue for or against this statement.
A: The news has been dominated this week by the tragic death of Molly Russell, the 14 year old girl who killed herself after being exposed to a series of images promoting self harm and suicide on Instagram. Her father has said that Instagram killed his daughter. He, like over 60% of parents we surveyed, monitored his daughter’s social media use closely. He thought he knew what his daughter was accessing. But how much do we really know about what our children are looking at when they are in their rooms, staring at their phones? This tragedy is the alarm we all need to hear, the alarm that should wake us up to the danger of mankind’s greatest invention: the internet.
For those of you groaning at the inclusion of those overused AFOREST techniques in the plan (urgh, AFOREST!) they are techniques that our grade 3-4 students are already familiar with and can write easily. Remember, our aim is to make them feel confident and capable as they approach this difficult task. As a result, these pupils wrote introductions which were engaging, outlined their argument for the body of the essay, and helped them stay focused on the task. I will add some examples to this post when I’ve typed some up.
Hope it helps!