This is part 2 of a focus on precision in curriculum design. The first part is here.

As previously discussed in the last post, the best way to avoid gaps emerging in student knowledge is to build curriculum incrementally and then assess those incremental stages. This strategy provides you with precise feedback where an issue lies, as there should really be only one thing that could have gone wrong, which can then be addressed before the next part of the curriculum is introduced.

Obviously however, there will be many times where the knowledge being assessed draws on a large number of skills from the domain, and feedback can’t be so easily isolated, and so in the next few posts I will offer strategies to try to reduce gaps at various stages of learning: tomorrow’s lesson; a new unit; start of KS3.

PRAGMATIC, NEXT LESSON APPROACH

This is where most of us are, walking into the classroom tomorrow. Let’s say for example that I want my students to compare two texts. This activity actually requires an enormous amount of knowledge, primarily content knowledge as well as the sequencing of putting the content into writing, but as best I can, I will try to isolate as much of the learning process as possible. For lots of my students, the content is the easier of the two processes, thanks to various retrieval strategies (here, and here) and linking the curriculum together to assist memory. So my focus will be on their writing. It seems obvious to say, but in making it so, any assessment of the students’ developing competency must centre on writing, and not content.

  1. This is key: don’t try to teach writing structure with new content (a recently studied poem, novel etc). Use simple texts.

    Originally, I would make the writing tasks open book, with notes available to reduce the cognitive load of having to think about the content as well as the structures required too respond. But I’ve begun to think that the cognitive load is still going to be high as students have only just been exposed to what are very complex texts. For this reason, I’ve begun to teach writing structure for comparative responses using texts that are simplistic in nature. A simple text type is the Aesop fable. The stories are perfect in that they are really well known (and if not, quickly and easily understood), and have very explicit sections that correlate to the way I want my students to respond. The fables have a clear storyline (the WHAT), a clear message (the WHY – strongly linked to context), and use precise language techniques (the HOW) to deliver the story and message.
  2. The next stage would be to provide a template, a structure with which students can respond. Students are given guidance on how to sequence a response to the first text. The actual analysis (the HOW) is not so important here, but more so the design of response.

3. This would involve explicit modelling, in the assiduous style of Sarah Barker. I begin with a focus on the introduction, colour coding the sections I want students to include, and I provide guidance on how much writing should approximately be dedicated to each section.

4. Once this is secure, I then move onto the harder component, the comparative design. Again, explicit modelling of how this is structured is key.

The introduction now involves 2 more components so this must be modelled, particularly the discussion involving comparison. Note the ‘as previously discussed’ phrase, an essential aspect of this type of question (see explanation of this regarding Eduqas exam board here).

I impress upon the students the LOGIC of this type of structure. It is by no means the only way to go about things, but for students struggling to come to terms with articulating themselves, this is a structure that certainly works.

After the intro, the HOW is brought into play. It is assumed that analysis writing would be understood, but if not, and to reinforce, I suggest reading Becky Wood’s wonderful post on strengthening analysis here. The end of the analysis section however, importantly now compares the How of this text to the How of the first text. This How connection can be either similar or different: the examiner is more concerned about threads that are reasonably connected. In the case below, the links are the behaviour of the animals at the beginning of the texts.

The final part of the response delves more into the comparisons in terms of the messages presented. This facilitates the necessary context discussion, but does it in a clever way, getting students to consider the WHY or PURPOSE of the text. I’ve written about this here.

The teacher should ensure that the majority of students have this mastered before introducing the next stage: writing about course content. Tom Needham elucidates Engelemann’s direct instruction intuitive notion that at least 70% of students should be able to complete the new task at hand, otherwise the teacher is basically shooting themselves in the foot, inevitably going to have to expend energy down the track to remedy the errors.

Once secure, students would use this model to write about any texts they want to compare. I think this is the beauty of this approach: the structure is explcit, and transferable.

Presently, in the poetry lesson described at the beginning of this post, that would involve comparing two poems that have nature as a theme. The full example in comparing Excerpt from The Prelude with To Autumn is here.

In the next post, I’ll discuss how to design incrementally for a unit of work.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.

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