Saturday, 25 May 2013

What’s technique vomiting? Spot first, effect after

There is an awful lot of feature spotting in English. So much that I think it is becoming a disease: the vomiting of technical terms associated with language analysis.

Teacher: What do you notice about this text?
Student 1: It’s got a rhetorical question.
Student 2: Alliteration.

Student 3: It rhymes.
Student 4: It has got long sentences in it.

Student 5: It uses a contrast.

Teacher: Does anyone think it is funny?

Student 1: Yeah, it is funny, but it has a simile in it.
I was privy to some Year 11s revising and it was an alarming and joyful experience all at the same time. Joyful, because I listened to two students discussing at length which poem they loved from the anthology. ‘Hawk Roosting’ was a loved by one. ‘Come on, Come back’ was adored by another. The boys explained how they were hoping to write about them in the exam. I chipped in and explained how I couldn’t stand ‘Come on, Come back’ for its blandness and its tenuous position in the conflict section of the anthology.  In response, I received a detailed explanation of how I was wrong. Great stuff, in my opinion; I am happy to be challenged. There was passion for the poems, which isn’t always seen. On the other hand, I overheard a conversation about techniques: “I will mention juxtaposition of incongruities,” said one student. “I’ve got an oxymoron here,” said another one. It was as if the poem wasn’t a collection of ideas, but a bag of techniques instead. The ammunition for the exam was not thought, but technical terms. It was feature spotting.

In my time, I have attended quite a few meetings with English teachers and most of them were led by AQA. Usually, I tend to be the only man or at least one of two men in the sessions given by the organisation. The general atmosphere is usually friendly and quiet, as we all read books and we are generally nice people, even if we do not like the use of the word ‘nice’. Where do you teach? Oh, really. Quickly, you find that you have a common interest, such as a colleague, school or a text you teach.

Anyway, there comes to a point where the leader of the meeting asks the teachers to get into groups and discuss a text. Every time this has happened to me a teacher will drop in a fancy technical term for something. Half the group lie and nod their heads, agreeing with the use of said technique. The rest look bemused by the Latin term used only once by a group of monks from a remote region of hills in France. I look at this person for clarification. They inform me that the term describes the use of rhetorical question. Then, why didn’t they use that term? Simply: they wanted to assert their intelligence over the rest of the group. But, it isn’t a sign of intelligence for me. I used to work in the insurance industry and I can spout jargon like nobody, but I don’t, for it will make me look a prat. Yes, jargon has a nasty habit of making you look an idiot. Using language effectively is about using language in a precise manner.

One of the greatest teachers I have seen teach used language so effectively and precisely that I still to this day remember the lesson. She didn’t spout technical terms with glee. In fact, she used two in the whole lesson, and that was at the end of it. She understood that it is the ideas behind the term and not the term itself that is important. How many lessons start with an objective about identifying things? How many classes have an activity that involves labelling something? Don’t get me wrong: the subject specific words are valuable because they encode to a reader that the speaker or writer is part of an elite group – the knowledgeable group. But, somewhere the term has become more important than the skill or the concept. Poetry isn’t about engagement with ideas now. It is about regurgitating a glossary of techniques. Today, grammar at primary school isn’t about the skill of using grammar. It is about spewing up a list of terms to fool someone into thinking you know what grammar is.

Across the land, there are glossaries in books and posters in classrooms aimed to help students, but what would be more useful would be a wider range of words used or even posters for different sentence structures. Students need the tools to explain thoughts better and not just a ‘wow word’ or technical term. The most able can use technical terms effectively, whereas others just chuck it in a sentence and hope to God that it works or it sounds right.

The problem lies with the exam. My students have sat the poetry exam this week. In one hour and fifteen minutes, they have had to write a comparison of two poems and a response to an unseen poem. Sadly, the short duration forces this technique vomiting, because what else can you do in such a short space of time. Quick spot something and talk about it. I said to my students that they had to show ‘thought and thinking’ in their writing this year and I feel that it has worked, because it moved them away from spotting things. However, I don’t think a simple case of ‘thinking’ will solve this ingrained problem of over-reliance of terminology.

This week I had a lesson observation. The class were exploring how a picture is used in a piece of non-fiction. It was a bit of preparation for a practice English language exam. However, I was a little bit foolish and I tried something new and it worked.

Instead of jumping in and analysing the text, we explored the effect of the text first. In pairs, the class had to decide if they were the writer or the reader. I showed the class the front cover of a newspaper this week. It featured the shocking story of the soldier’s murder.  I am still stunned by the events that took place. (Like others, I am trying to understand the events and my thoughts and prayers go to the poor soldier’s family.)  

The student who was the ‘reader’ had to describe to the ‘writer’ how they felt and feel when they read it. This conversation was quite heated, understandably. As a class, we shared the different readers’ thoughts. Most were shocked and horrified with the picture. Some questioned the choice of the attacker over the victim. A few felt is was inappropriate for a mainstream newspaper to publish a picture like this. They questioned the reaction it might cause and one student said that if he had a daughter, he wouldn’t want her to see this picture.

Then we inverted the situation. The ‘writers’ had to explain their choices and why they made those particular choices. There followed a detailed discussion of the choices made with some references to technical terms, but they were combined with the effect on the reader. Students were able to see through role play the importance of the writer and the reader when discussing the text. Often, we obsess on what has the writer done (the techniques) and then we link in our feelings. This way the feelings and the thoughts are at the front of what we were analysing.

I will put the whole lesson on the blog at a later stage, but I think the concept of role play element in non-fiction really worked. Students could easily adopt the roles of the reader or writer and it made the learning so much better than having the endless list of techniques spotted. Again, I am going back to ‘choices’ and being explicit about teaching students to see writing as a process of choices. However, this method makes the reader and writer explicit in our teaching of language analysis.   

I am now going to have a week free of techniques.

Thanks for reading,



  1. Excellent post. And I really, really like your idea of splitting the class into readers and writers. Will do that. And your monk sentence made me laugh.

  2. I love this. I might try your method with AS English Language students whom I'm always trying to get to think about who wrote the text, their intention, and the reader's response, rather than identifying devices and assuming they always have the same effect in any text. With Literature students, too, I've found when they're trying to focus on language, they forget meaning entirely!

    1. I am glad I am not alone with this. Thanks for comment ; )

  3. Well said - forever battling with students train-spotting. It is banned from the minute we analyse in any of my classes. Interesting to see that in the mark scheme and examiner's report for Eng Lit state that marks are not awarded for finding devices. A student can talk of effect and not mention a single device and still gain top marks.