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Going beyond the superficial

How do we encourage students towards analysis which goes beyond the superficial?

When I’m marking analytical writing for my Year 7, the thing that stands out the most is that many of my students, to start with at least, just end up paraphrasing the quote. I end up with paragraphs something along the lines of: Jim was scared. The quote “Jim felt scared” shows that Jim is frightened. It’s a heavily simplified example, but you get the idea.

Now, better teaching of how to “do” analysis is clearly needed here and this was what started me thinking. When we begin teaching analytical writing about texts it’s very easy to fall into a trap labelled PEE/PEA (Point, Evidence, Explain/Point, Evidence, Analysis) which students are still struggling to climb out of by the time we get to Year 11. Scaffolding has its place and it is important, but it felt to me like we were skipping a step. At the beginning of Year 7, reading assessments were a constant battle to get students to write something that vaguely resembled analytical writing and the quality of it, from all but our very brightest, was somewhat lacking.

In creating this emphasis on writing about texts and thinking about how we taught students to write about texts, it occurred to me that we weren’t spending enough time thinking about texts or teaching students how to think about texts. This thought was partly pre-empted by going to visit a local primary school and tagging along on one of their training days about Pie Corbett’s Talk For Writing. One of the main premises of the Talk For Writing strategy seemed to hinge on the idea that if you can’t tell a story, then you don’t understand the building blocks of a story and thus will find it nigh on impossible to write one. And by extension, it seems to me, that if students can’t think analytically about a text, then writing analytically about a text is also going to be nigh on impossible.

So we did something somewhat radical. We banished PEE/PEA paragraphs for the whole of the first reading assessment for Year 7. In doing so, we found more time for our teaching of how to think about texts. We spent hours talking and annotating and breaking down how we dig deeper into a text- trying to model as teachers the processes we go through when we meet a text for the first time. Trying to teach how to ask questions about a text and how to scroll through our list of questions and decide which ones to ask of each new text.

By the time we got to assessing their reading skills at Christmas, even our very weakest students were able to pick interesting things out of a text, discuss them at some length and have a go at explaining what quotes and individual words might suggest. We focussed a lot with our weaker students on the difference between what a word means or suggests and how this might help them develop their analysis away from superficial explanation. Their assessment took the form of a pair of students discussing an extract of text, recording their discussion on iPads and showing off their newly sharpened analytical skills.

In removing the need for a formal, and fairly fixed, written structure, we found our Year 7 students were much more confident and much more able to produce detailed analysis. From here, we will move forward and think about how we scaffold these skills into written analysis.

Charlotte Bunting

English Department

Saffron Walden County High School

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