Monday, 27 October 2014

Solving the essay problem: Part 2

At the moment, I am planning for the GCSE Shakespeare comparative essay. It is a beast. And, in a very rare occasion (all my own doing so no need for any sympathy), I am doing it with both Year 10 and Year 11 at the same time. The Year 11 class are comparing ‘Othello’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’, while the Year 10 class are comparing ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.  You can see I like variety.

Anyway, during a lesson this week something happened. I was showing students three versions of a scene from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. We were watching the scene where Don Jon reveals his melancholy. Branagh’s version has this taking place during a massage. The creaky BBC version from the 1980s had this happen on a bed. The latest version from Joss Whedon also had this scene take place on a bed too, but with one difference: Conrad was now a woman and Don Jon was ‘very’ familiar with her.

Now, I am one of those people that can miss signposts. I have often missed a turning because a sign post was too big for me to notice. One student piped up: ‘Sir, is Don Jon gay then?’ Then, the student started to join the dots. He highlighted how one version concentrated on Don John being half-naked and massaged. He also connected how the bedroom tends to be the focus of conversations, highlighting the sexual nature of things. He then went on to describe how this is just a ‘men only discussion’. Finally, to add to his smugness he then stated how most characters pair off at the end of the story, apart from Don Pedro, because he is too busy, and Don Jon.  I then nervously coughed and added my bit. I made a reference to Antonio in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and how he indirectly is the cause of trouble for another relationship. Shakespeare starts the play with Antonio being melancholic and ends he play being single. Oh and he gets to keep his ‘pound of flesh’! Cough. Cough.  

I have been telling students this week that English is 80% thinking and 20% learning. I have no evidence to back this statement up, but the above anecdote does actually prove my point. The student had learnt the story, the character and some other superfluous information, yet through thinking he had attained a clever interpretation of the text and interrogate the presentation of a character. It wasn’t a structured part of the lesson. It was spontaneous.  He had an idea and then developed it. I added to it. But, it became a fully fledged idea with evidence, connections and references to the writer’s ideas. It was a natural progression of a thought. No set structure. Just honest, old fashioned thought.
This is a problem with education: getting students to think. How any of us have moaned about students not thinking? How many of us have had essays given to us that are transcripts of our lessons? There are students that are trained to soak up ideas in a class. They don’t soak up and interpret them themselves. They soak and repeat. There are a large number of students that listen and repeat. I have had to address this issue numerous times. The students think they are doing well because they have lot of ideas – sadly, none of their own. My fear is that they don’t grow out of it in time for the exam. We sadly insist on structures for students to follow. Look at some of the acronyms I have collected over the years:


My 'favourite' is PEEASE.

Point / Evidence / Explanation / Analyse / Subquote / Explanation

It’s so good it trips off the tongue. That last sentence is dripping with sarcasm. I have always argued against formulaic writing. But, sadly, it seems to be ingrained in the culture of teaching English. It is a default setting when analysing texts by using PEE. Does logical thought think that way? Does the PEE structure mimic thought or the communication of a thought? Does it develop thinking? Or, does it shackle an idea in a rigid framework that constricts independent thought?

The use of PEE has been borne out of the need to secure a C grade; in the same way that KS2 SATs place emphasis on certain writing characteristics that supposedly embody a level 5. It is kind of a midpoint. The scaffolding to get to a certain stage. It is a way for students to develop ideas instead of describing plot details. On a wider level, it is a reductive process. PEE, in my opinion, prevents natural thought processes and connections to disparate ideas. I have read hundreds of paragraphs and the one thing that often happens in that a student often gets to the good stuff in the last two sentences of a paragraph. Or, failing that, they just repeat what they have previously said in the last two sentences.

I don’t think a rigid structure is the answer. In fact, I think the removal of a structure is quite an empowering thought to us as writers. The knowledge that PEE can be in any order is something we need to teach. You can start with either point / evidence or explanation. Look at academic essays and you see that the combination of these is not limited to the order of PEE. Looking at all the attempts to put a spin on PEE, they all amount to the same thing: one single acronym will not convey the complexity of the thought processes involved in expressing a point in an essay. Nothing fits the structure of PEE, because….. essayists do all of these skills (pointing, evidencing and explaining) all at once and at separate times and in no particular order. Now, teach that to students.  

Start with an explanation of what Shakespeare is trying to do.

Start with an explanation of how the audience reacts to a line.

Start with a quote.  

Start with a combination of explaining the audience’s reaction and explaining the writer’s purpose.

Maybe instead of destroying PEE we should split it up. We should mix it up. We should blend it all together. Instead of following a rigid structure, we should maybe focus on their writing being a mixture of these elements and not governed by a select order.

One thing I have recently done is show students this:


Level 5                                                                                  Level 7

Describe              90%                                                                       20%       

Explain                  10%                                                                        50%

Link                        0%                                                                          15%

Opinion                0%                                                                          15%


They adapted their writing and made better paragraphs as a result. What made their writing better wasn’t a rigid structure, but an understanding of how they should express their points. How to communicate things better. After all, isn’t that a fundamental point of teaching English. Making students communicate better.

Going back to the Don Jon dilemma, it has got worse. The theory is set to continue: Iago actively splits a couple up and Doctor Jekyll leads a double life where he dresses differently. I don’t think I will have a problem with them using PEE. More likely I will have a problem with students reducing everything down to Don Jon being gay.

Thanks for reading,


Next time: Part 3: Making students better thinkers   

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Solving the essay problem - Part 1

I have just returned from Southampton and the fabulous Teaching and Learning Takeover, or #TLT14, as we know it in the Twitter world. And, what an event it has been. Full to the brim of great people and great ideas. The hardest thing for everyone was deciding who to visit. Like a teacher’s version of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (and mild in comparison to the real thing), I had to pick one teacher over another. Do I see X? Or, do I see Y? In fact, I wanted to see X, Y and Z.  Still this morning I feel bad, as I missed out seeing people. Nonetheless, it was fun.

Anyway, my talk was on essay writing. I had the perfect combination of the last session and essay writing. Nothing like leaving the dynamite stuff to the end.

Essay writing is a complex thing and I don’t think any school has all the answers, but I think there are a lot of problems. Simply: how we write. From birth, we are constantly telling students to add things to their writing. Add a full stop. Add a comma. Add an adjective. Add a wow word. Add a connective. By the time students reach us in Year 7, the pattern happens again. Add this. Add that. So much that writing becomes this overloaded mess. And, it is a mess, if we are honest. We give students lists of things to add to their writing before assessments. We give them level ladders to show what they need to add to get to the next level. We even given them writing mats to help them add some more. The problem we have with writing is that it full of too many things.

Like readymade meals, there is so much added that you can’t be sure what is really in it. Thankfully, we won’t find any horsemeat in our students’ writing.

Academic writing, if I am honest, is simple and concise writing. It deals with big-complex-head-scratchy-headache-inducing stuff in a clear and formal way. Academic writing explains and develops an idea. Look at how we as teachers talk in a lesson. We talk in an academic way. We concisely explain complex ideas and develop ideas and thoughts. We rarely use vague language. We don’t list ideas. We introduce and develop ideas. But, what do our students do? They mention everything they have learnt. They list all their ideas.

What does an essay really do?

An essay will generally do all of these at some point.

       Explains – reasons

       Evaluates – gives opinions  

       Criticises - flaws

       Clarifies  - rephrases

       Explores  - how others might see it

       Analyses – highlights specific things of interest 

       Links – makes connections to contrasting elements

All can be said to be elements of our lessons. Yet, we try to force all of these skills at once, or we try to enforce a structure on to the essay writing process. We try to get students to PEE (Point Evidence Explanation). But real essays don’t follow that pattern. I checked my essays from university. They didn’t. They were a patchwork of PEE. In fact the essays had all three at sporadic moments in the essay. Sometimes, I started with evidence. Sometimes, I used evidence in the middle of something. Sometimes, I finished with evidence. Relate this to the use of evidence in a court of law. When is the best time to reveal a key bit of evidence? When it is appropriate. Or, when it will get the best impact.
Most exam boards moan about the PEE structure and they are right to. Explaining an idea in detail doesn’t take a clear form, as the idea is abstract, transient and vague. Like capturing stars, there is no known way to do it. We try to put it down on paper. To assume, a simple structure will unlock a genius or academic writing is undermining education.

Because the focus is following rigid structures of development, students stumble. They list things. And, rather than develop an idea in a more intelligent way, they add more stuff. So we go back to the additives approach again. Add some connectives.

I have read quite a few essays recently and a striking thing I have noticed: how simple some of the writing is. Not just simple. Really simple. Going to essays dating to the 1950s and earlier, I am surprised at how simple the writing in comparison to what I have got into my head ‘academic writing’ should look like. There is a collective picture of what academic writing is.

Just look at these openings to some of the sentences I found:

We must not neglect…

We are familiar with ….

This blending of….

There are striking uses of …

So prevalent is the notion that…

In one sense…

It is even conceivable …

In the view of ….

The factor above all else…

One of the real problems…

The more perceptive of…

It reminds one of …

This blending of 

This is certainly not…

But in the case of …

It may be possible to suggest …

I read through books of essays and the writing often features words like ‘it’, ‘this’ and ‘the’ at the start of a sentence. The subjects of sentences are often very simple too. The idea behind the sentence is the complex aspect, not the sentence.

In fact, reading the essays I discovered how rarely academics used connectives or discourse markers. In one essay, I witnessed only two examples. Only two. Yet, we insist that students use them with aplomb. We tend to think that students need connectives to develop an idea. Rubbish. The ideas need developing. The use of connectives forces students to list ideas. Moreover. Furthermore. Additionally. They do not develop the original idea. Like icing on a cake, it looks good, but the cake still tastes of poo and has a soggy bottom.  

We need to help students to develop their ideas without the need of connectives. We need to look at the drawing board of how we get students to develop their ideas. We need to get our students thinking more. Just adding things will not make the think better. It just gets them to overload things.

We all want students to be better, but are we limiting the thinking through the teaching and how we teach things? The longer I teach, the more I realise how teaching some simple things can have a greater impact than far more complex things.

Let’s teach students to use a discourse marker once only in an essay. Yes, they help create cohesion and they signal the direction of the argument, but they don’t hold an essay together. The ideas and the development of ideas are what makes an essay hold together.

I will carry on more of the discussion in my next blog.

Thanks for reading and a big thanks to Jenn and David for organising the whole event.


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Writing for a week with a .... pen

I love writing. I might not be the best of writers, but like lots of pub drunk singers, I do it regardless of my ability, or inability. So, when offered the chance of blogging about handwriting for a week, I snapped up the chance. The catch: I had to use a pen. A lovely, shiny fountain pen. For a week, I had to use a pen.  It’s a hard life.

I am a die-hard biro user. Die-hard because I am probably close to having ink poisoning at several points during the day . I tend to chew pens so I am always embarrassed when someone asks to borrow a pen. Are you sure? I nervously hand the pen over. You can see the disgust in a person's eyes when they notice you chew pens. A psychologist would have a field day with me.
My new pen was metal: It’s quite hard to chew a pen that’s made of metal.

Anyway, for a week I wrote with a fountain pen. After a few ‘get you being posh writing with a fountain pen’s, I started to really enjoy it.

A traditional biro makes my writing blend together when I write in cursive script, yet a fountain pen made my letters clear and legible. The biro is cheap and the evidence speaks for its self. As a child I always avoided fountain pen because I seem to have the knack of getting more ink on my hands than on the page. As an adult, a fountain pen made me write slowly and clearly; something that I often fail to do because I am always in a rush.

The whole experience made me think about my writing, and, especially my handwriting. It is true that I often get students asking me to decipher my handwriting for them. Sir, what does this word mean? The problem: the letters are joined up. But, why do they have this problem? Is it my handwriting? Are they used to seeing handwritten words? How will they get familiar with if they don’t see it? There’s a sense of irony about things when primary schools spend endless hours teaching students to join letters, yet teachers don’t link letters for fear students will not be able to read them.

I am quite stubborn; I will not separate letters. Students have to get used to my writing. They have to be able to read joined up writing. Yes, we are in the modern age, but there is something special about something handwritten. How many students have read a letter, a postcard or a note? Communication is more than just typing something. It is crafting and shaping something. Technology can do this, but handwriting makes it more tangible. It is real. And, it is permanent.  

A student’s reluctance to decode handwriting is also a reflection of how technology has shaped the way we see things. Handwriting is slow. Doing it is slow. Reading it is slow. It isn’t instantaneous. In an age of things being at the click of a button, it is only right that we make students slow down and think. We want intelligent communicators. We want student to think and craft an idea and not blurt the first thing that comes to mind. We have Facebook and Twitter to help them do that. Trollers wouldn’t be a trolling if they had to write things in ink and then wait a day for the other person to read it.

So, what has my week with a fountain pen taught me? Well, the first thing is that the implement you write with is important. A cheap pen could produce cheap writing. Fancy implements make better handwriting. The second thing is that there is more we can do in schools to support handwriting, especially the reading of it.  Are we creating a problem simply by trying to help? Maybe, we have to raise the status of handwriting. The use of it. The frequency of it. The reading of it.
I am off to buy a quill and some parchment now. Maybe if Shakespeare used it, I could be as good as him one day. Who am I kidding?

Thanks for reading,


There are more blogs on teachers using pens here.