Some years ago the school I worked in had no real accountability measures or explicit expectations about how teachers marked their books. Consequently, many never did, and the vast majority of the others (including myself) did it sporadically and with no real impact or reason. It was very much a case of ticking the pages and leaving a “well done” or a “good work” at the bottom to show the student that their books had been looked at. I remember a training day where teachers who were deemed outstanding were asked to put on exemplary lessons for teachers to partake in. It was a great experience but what shocked me was that in one lesson the books were marked with nothing other than ticks and “well dones”. Clearly not “outstanding” practice (whatever that may be, but that’s another discussion!).
Then, about 3 or 4 years ago, I started to read quite widely about educational practice and realised that this simply wasn’t good enough. Hattie and Wiliam published their stuff and it became apparent to those of us that read this kind of thing that marking and feedback probably the single most important thing a teacher can do to improve student progress, if done well.
So I decided to change my ways. When I sat down and thought about it, which I’d never done previously, I realised that sometimes I only marked some sets of books once or twice a term. Where was the good in that? By the time the work was marked, students had moved on to a new topic! The marking was irrelevant! The second problem, I realised, was that the comments weren’t targeted at the work the students had produced; they were simply generic praise or encouragement.
To tackle these two issues I resolved to do two things: mark more frequently and regularly, and ensure that the comments I wrote were actually referring to the quality of the work students had produced and suggest ways they could improve. These two simple things seem so obvious now, but working in a culture where these basic things are not seen as normal and marking isn’t ever spoken about or monitored creates a situation in which terrible practice can develop.
Anyway, I decided to start tracking my marking using a spreadsheet (something that I still do) so that I could see when each set of books had been marked. This turned out to be a fantastic tool in supporting and motivating my marking. The visual record of highlighted and un-highlighted boxes served as a catalyst to ensure that each class got their fair share of attention and that no books were left for an unacceptable period of time.
The second change, the quality of comments, was also massive. As well as marking for literacy errors throughout a piece of work (which I’d always done), I began leave one comment at the end that embodied both some praise and formative feedback, for example “Lovely description with excellent choice of similes, but please revise the rule for using apostrophes.” Clearly this was much better. But I still didn’t see a lot of impact.
I began looking at other colleagues’ work. I determined to steer well clear of the frankly patronising and nauseating “2 stars and a wish” that some colleagues employed, but I did discover that one colleague separated out the two parts of the comment, beginning with a positive and then setting out the target for improvement below next to a circled capital letter “T”. Again, better, but still no real impact on progress.
At this time it began to be picked up by the SLT, thanks to a county visit, that actually marking is quite important (you’ll detect a hint of understatement here), and they began to talk more about marking and make their new higher expectations more evident. HoDs suddenly felt that the answer was to have pages that had more teacher feedback than student work on them. The emphasis was on the quantity of what was written, and this was reflected in the scrutinies. I am fairly confident that I could have covered those pages in irrelevant scrawl and, provided there was plenty of it, the scrutinies wouldn’t have picked this up.
And, as I stated earlier, still no real impact. So what was missing? From a 2014 perspective, it will be obvious to most: a lack of DIRT time. Giving students the time and space to reflect on their prior learning, respond to teacher comments, make corrections, redraft their work and enter into a dialogue with the teacher about what they have done. Couple this with high quality peer assessment and you have, in my opinion, the silver bullet. The gaps will close, the students will make progress and, if done regularly and routinized, a culture of learning and aspiration will begin to develop.
The last thing that we introduced, which I think really makes for great practice, was the use of highlighters in our marking. Rather than just having the two comments at the end with a positive and a target, we now colour code these in blue and yellow. Blue = www (what went well), yellow = ebi (even better if). The students know what the colours stand for and the students work looks great. We don’t cover the whole lot in highlighter, but pick out key bits that correspond to the comments at the end. And, if you keep on top of it, it really isn’t all that time consuming.
So, why the blog title? I few weeks ago I was discussing with my new headteacher the importance of marking and feedback, and he coined this phrase, acknowledging the potentially back breaking work load associated with good marking that isn’t carried out in a smart way. “Teachers need to be marking for effect, not marking for England.”
And herein lies the rub; great marking that has an impact isn’t about teachers writing a lot in books, in fact sometimes we may not need to write anything. I don’t like to comment extensively on class notes and things like that. Comments should be reserved for pieces of writing that are original and demonstrate a student’s learning and ideas and they should be targeted in a way that supports and develops that learning and those ideas. It should only ever focus on the work in the book and it should consist of questions, targeted comments, peer assessment and DIRT time, not lines and lines of generic blather telling the student how lovely they are and how much the teacher thinks of them.
This week I read Graham Nuthall’s “The Hidden Lives of Learners” ready for the @EduChatUK discussion on Wednesday. It is a fascinating study of student behaviour and learning in the classroom, but I’m not sure it has any new implications for most teachers. I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but the key points of the book seem to be:
1) Everyone learns differently depending on their prior experiences
2) A concept needs to be revisited at least three times for it to be learnt.
3) There are three separate cultural spheres at play in the classroom
I’d like to discuss each of these in turn.
1) Everyone learns differently depending on their prior experiences.
Prior experience, the “nurture” aspect of the false nature/nurture dichotomy, is arguably the single most important factor in determining the performance and behaviour of a student in the classroom. Regardless of the school experience, a child that has spent the first four years of his life in an unstimulating environment in which he receives limited social interaction or parental feedback, and where the usual babysitter is the TV, will unquestionably perform less well than a child for whom the opposite is true. This is because success in the classroom relies on internalising “normal” social relations and a high level of cultural capital. The former allows the child to interact positively with adults and peers and the latter allows the child to make connections between his own knowledge and the new knowledge that he’s learning in the classroom (I have blogged about this previously in a post entitled “Ways to Change the Way we Differentiate”). So, although what Nuthall discusses is clearly true, it is not new. Good teachers have known this since ancient times. It’s very much an example of the “Matthew Effect”, as described by David Didau. What may be revolutionary for some teachers is the notion that we should try to gauge and understand a student’s prior knowledge base so that we can design learning experiences in such a way that they will connect to that prior knowledge, although I’m not even sure that we need to take such a vast variety of information into account in our formal planning, but rather we need to be aware of it so that we can differentiate effectively during our lessons in the explanations we give and the examples and analogies we use to clarify concepts for individual students.
2) A concept needs to be revisited at least three times for it to be learnt.
When we want students to learn any concept we try to demonstrate it and give them chance to practice it in as many ways as possible. If we just tell them or show them something once or twice, there is clearly no way that this can then be committed to the working memory. What I loved in Nuthall’s book was the metaphor of a “learning landscape” that we have to allow our students to explore in many different ways in order to be familiar with it. You can walk through a landscape using many different paths, you can fly over it, you can draw it, photograph it, map it and describe it. In the same way we need to engineer situations that allow our students to explore concepts in many different ways. So for example, this week I’ve been trying to create lessons that will allow my students to explore how and why social relationships are affected by social media. Their homework was to transcribe some examples of their own social media use. We read two newspaper articles: one about how there are marked differences in how the genders take absorb “text speak” into their own spoken vocabulary; the second was about a young woman who tweeted about knocking a cyclist off his bike whilst driving. We watched a YouTube clip made by a freshman at an American university on how his friends use social media, and lastly the students were given the space to study and make notes on the transcripts they had brought in. This led to them being in a strong position to understand the concept we set out to investigate (the effect of social media on human relationships). Again, Nuthall’s assertion is probably correct, but it’s nothing new.
3) There are three separate cultural spheres at play in the classroom
The argument that there are three social or cultural spheres at work in the classroom is an oversimplification. However, I can see that this is a really useful way to think about the classroom when dealing with the social aspects of learning. Nuthall suggests that the classroom is divided up into the public culture that we take for granted, controlled (in theory) by the teacher; the social sphere of the students that teachers are very often unaware of; and the private mental worlds of the students themselves. Students’ priorities are very much bound up in the latter two and to get them to engage with public sphere they have to be experts in designing and delivering exciting and engaging lessons. We have to be aware of the peer culture and try, as best we can, to tap into it and use it to our advantage. He gives some lovely examples of the sorts of conversations that students have in the classroom through transcriptions of recordings he has made. These show a variety of traits, from serious and active discussion of the topic, through topic related arguments about misconceptions and misunderstandings, to all out battling and bullying in an effort to recreate the social hierarchy in a new way. The implications for us as teachers are clear: we have to be constantly aware of what everyone in the room is doing and saying. This, obviously, isn’t possible, but we must at least try. Again, this is nothing new, and comes down, as always in the teaching trade, to the relationships we have with our students and the way we actively differentiate for individuals within the lesson. My issue with the three spheres assertion is that it dramatically oversimplifies things – there are in reality an infinite number of spheres in the classroom as people from different backgrounds and different social statuses interact with one another, negotiating and renegotiating their own personal and social identities through, and in spite of, the things that they learn or do in lessons.
Although I insist that there is nothing new in this book and that it simply serves to underline what teachers are, hopefully, already doing, it is still an important read for anybody involved in education, because it forces us to rethink how we deal with the issues outlined and gives us a vehicle through which we can actively think about and discuss them. Furthermore, it is worth reading just for the transcripts of the conversations the kids have. Some of these are laugh-out-loud funny, and some are desperately sad and tragic, particularly the racist name-calling that takes place as students from different ethnicities jockey to work their way up the hierarchy of their peer group. It is a book that should be on the shelf of the staff section of any school library and one that will help us to deal more pragmatically with the things that, as teachers, we often forget about or take for granted.
I had an epiphany yesterday. We were practising comparing and analysing a couple of poems, as you do at this time of year with your year 11s, when one of the brightest boys (on paper) in my class complained for the umpteenth time that “This is stupid! It can’t be right! It’s just words. I bet if you spoke to these poets they wouldn’t have ever thought this stuff when they were writing the poem.”
I went and sat with him and instigated a discussion on the complexities and nuances of language and of texts as cultural artefacts that can be dealt with separately from the author. We discussed the hidden depths of meaning that language has and how language is a vehicle of knowledge, culture and history. He pointed out that the kettle I use is just a kettle because it’s a kettle, so we talked about how the word kettle has origins going back to the industrial revolution and beyond, and that all the historical and cultural connotations are bound up in the word. Well, this really annoyed him because he began to realise that, in reality, words aren’t “just words”.
The student in question is an A* student in maths and science, and we began talking about how things either are or aren’t in these subjects and that invariably there is a right or wrong answer. So we discussed further the possibility that without language we couldn’t know anything about the world, and that the extent of our knowledge is bound by the extent of our vocabulary and that new words have to be invented for new ideas, concepts or discoveries, even in science and maths. This really got him thinking, and he finally decided that he just found poetry hard because he doesn’t like ambiguity. Clearly, this very bright young man’s brain has developed in such a way that it thrives on certainty and proof.
I began thinking a bit more about this. The main problem, to my mind, is that throughout key stage three, this student has studied poetry for three half terms (historically there’s been one poetry unit a year every half term where I work). This means that 46 weeks of the year in years 7-9 he’s not read any poetry worthy of the word.
Then, in year 10, he’s studied a few poems for his controlled assessment that he’s had to compare with a Shakespeare play. This has really emphasised in his mind how much he hates the stuff.
Next, in year 11, he has to study poetry to develop the skills needed to answer the unseen poetry question in the exam. Again, he knows that he has to do this to pass his exam, has already decided on and embedded the notion that he’s rubbish at it, and therefore sees this stuff as out to get him.
But then the problem is compounded, you see. All this is happening in parallel to him dealing with his adolescence and growth into young adulthood. This is a time when we are desperately trying to find out who we are and how our identity fits into the social world around us. We crave certainty and clear black and white answers. We don’t want ambiguity and confusion and ambivalence as this stops us from knowing who we are. And so, when sporadically exposed to poetry, it only adds to the confusion and difficulty of growing up. Not only are we fumbling around trying to understand individual and group identities, but we’re also expected to interpret pieces of text with no real correct interpretation. This has got to be the best way to upset somebody who is worried about their own uncertainties.
So what is the answer? Students should study poetry because it is the epitome of linguistic and cultural achievement, and they have to study it because they’re going to be examined on it. Therefore the answer is obvious. STUDY LOADS OF POETRY ALL THE TIME.
If our students are given a steady diet of poetry almost every week of their teenage lives, it will help them to come to terms with the fact that the world is a place with multiple layers of meaning that can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. It will allow them to deal with issues that they can relate to from a safe distance. They may realise that it’s ok to be a little unsure of exactly who they are. And less importantly, when they go into the exam, they will be confident in understanding and interpreting poems and in articulating their ideas about them.
“Stretch them and they will Soar:” the bright future of English teaching.
I’m really excited about the new KS3 English Curriculum. As far as I can see, there’s a lot to like. And I’m also in the very lucky position of moving into a role where it’ll be up to me to design and implement it. My interpretation of how to apply it is very simple: the students in my school will enjoy reading and writing high quality texts with ease and fluency. They will develop a cultural capital the majority have never had at that age through studying great literature, and they will understand and be able to articulate why and how language works and changes in the ways it does. And they will be confident speakers who can use and shape our marvellous language for a myriad of purposes and situations. All this will be framed by an intimate knowledge and understanding of the history of English Literature.
Ever since I began teaching, KS3 has consisted of texts like Hatchet, Stone Cold, Skellig and the others. These are all good stories that kids should be reading, but they should be reading them in their own time. If a child only gets 3 or 4 hours per week in English in secondary school, then that three or four hours really has to be spent in studying great literature with the help of someone who knows the subject. For so many years, we’ve shied away from actually challenging our students by studying texts that they we know will be easily accessible. But what a waste of time that is. Surely if we make the hard stuff accessible then the other stuff becomes easy reading for their leisure time? There has been a history of us as English teachers implicitly telling our students that they can’t study “hard” texts and great literature. They’re just not up to the job. This is clearly rubbish. And it’s also no wonder KS4 is such a shock when they actually have to look at some literature.
Last year I was having a conversation with somebody on Twitter about redesigning the year 9 curriculum. Her curriculum consisted of a rich diet of great work from “The Canon”. When I pointed out that it may be a bit much for my students, she replied with a lovely phrase that I have never forgotten: “stretch them and they will soar.” This has become almost a mantra for me since then, and it really is true. It’s a beautiful phrase that cleverly sums up and encapsulates the way teaching is going; one might say it’s the spirit of the Growth Mindset in a nutshell.
Let me give you an example. I teach a set 5 year 9 group. This in a vertical setting system and so consists of students who are considered to be the weakest in their band (teaching these types of groups over the last few years has made me become a strong advocate of genuinely mixed groupings, something I intend to write about soon). What I’ve noticed this year with these students is that they really believe that they are rubbish. They are convinced that they simply can’t read, write or speak well. And who can blame them? They’re into their 9th school year of people telling them that they can’t do things, and of support departments giving them labels and little stickers that they can show teachers saying “don’t ask me to read aloud” and the like. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!
This half term we’ve been studying the poetry unit. This is an absolute pet hate of mine – how crazy to do one unit a year on poetry in English. Poetry is the absolute epitome of linguistic achievement and the most fun (our new curriculum will have a rich diet of poetry all year round). In recent years I’d have read a few poems with them, drawn a few pictures relating to the imagery, created some storyboards etc. etc. And don’t get me wrong, we’re still doing a bit of this. But what we’re now doing in addition is some proper study of the language and how it works to create meaning; really getting to the nitty-gritty of the interaction between sound and sense and how the two work in a symbiotic relationship to create a beautiful whole.
So we read and compared three poems together: Leisure by WH Davies, Human Interest by Carol Ann Duffy and Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes. Our focus was on the meaning of the poems and how these related to the sound of the words as the poems are read aloud. These kids, who think they can’t do things very well and have the paperwork to prove it, were identifying and discussing tetrameter and pentameter. They were identifying feet and iambs and trochees and telling me where the stress was in the lines and how this forced the reader to read it in a certain way. They were explaining how the clanging and clashing of harsh consonant sounds in Human Interest reflects the narrator’s confused and desperate state of mind, and how the careful rhythmical control in Hawk Roosting demonstrates the power and majesty of the bird, and how Davies’s use of iambic pentameter structured into rhyming couplets ties in with the sense of ordered beauty he is describing (a few weeks earlier they also produced some very articulate and enthusiastic persuasive speeches on their pet hates, which they really shouldn’t be doing according to the little stickers in their planners).
These are kids who can’t do things and have the paperwork to prove it. What rubbish. They’ve just been allowed to fall into the trap of believing they can’t do it thanks to the adults that have made them that way. Talk about manufacturing a dependent and underachieving underclass of the future. The biggest struggle to my mind is to ensure that all staff in our schools are prepared to push and challenge these types of students so that they consistently produce good quality work that is worthy of the genuine praise it receives. It’s a steep hill to climb, but we’ve got to try.
“Stretch them and they will soar.” They sure will.
Let’s not get hung up. Don’t don a lab coat. Put the microscope away. Bin the Bunsen burner. I’m not asking you to become some kind of Einstein-esque experimenting guru. Rather, what I am asking is for you to work out what didn’t work in your practice last week and then use the web to find ways to avoid it happening again. In the current fervour of educational improvement there is so much written evidence to draw on that to sit on our laurels is to do a disservice to those that rely on us i.e. the kids.
Flashback ten years: it was acceptable for kids not to learn if they were quiet and unobtrusive. Three part lessons were the way forward. Starters, mains and plenaries (read desserts) were the only way kid could learn.
But since then teachers have been blogging. Sharing good practice. Letting one another into the secret. Spilling the beans so to speak.
When I became a novice, great teaching was like a hidden secret. Certain gifted individuals were able to pull it off, but the majority probably couldn’t. Sometimes these individuals became ASTs; they had access to a sacred knowledge that the rest of us could only aspire to. HoDs pointed us towards them: “watch this and aspire to it. You won’t ever be able to do it, but please do aspire!”
But good old democracy took over. Hattie and Wiliam published their stuff. Suddenly it wasn’t rocket science anymore. It became accessible for every educator. Tell them what they need to know; give them the means to succeed; show them an example to aspire to; make success criteria explicit and provide a variety of routes to make it happen.
Twitter and the blogging sites have meant that the practice of teaching and CPD have truly become accessible for all of us in the profession. Suddenly we can learn not only from our own experience (which often doesn’t happen anyway due to a lack of dedicated deliberate reflection time) and from those “gurus” who visit on training days bandying about “the silver bullet”, but from the true experts themselves, those who teach 20+ hour per week and who are the real gurus. The future of the art and craft of teaching have never looked so rosy.
Clearly I’m preaching to the converted here. So, if you can, try to introduce a colleague to Twitter and blogging this coming week. It may be that the experiences they have in the classroom could be just what somebody hundreds or thousands of miles away needs to inspire and improve their own practice. You could probably learn from them yourself.
I’m currently on a mission to make all my lessons much more practical and so, last week, I invested in some reusable “magic” post-it notes. I was amazed by the power they have to engage students. I used them with a small group of 16 year 9 LAS with a 40% EAL ratio and an even higher SEN ratio. We’re currently reading Heroes and had got to the point where Larry had committed the rape.
The lesson after, as a starter activity, I decided we would speculate where Larry may have gone after the rape (a big deal is made of the gossip in the town the following day about his disappearance). I gave everybody – including myself and the TA – a magic post-it on which to write a possible destination. These ranged from Majorca to the local army base and from England to Mexico to Africa. Once we had written the destination, everyone had to stick their magic post-it to the whiteboard in a horizontal line and also make sure they had a good reason for choosing that destination. Finally we all lined up facing the whiteboard so that the really good part of the activity could begin.
The aim of the activity was to put the horizontal line-up into a vertical ranking of likelihood using the power of argument. Anybody could move any post-it to any position on the hierarchy, but they would have to be able to justify the move and position and could only move one each time they went up to the board. Only one person was allowed to move at any one time and there was no specific order of turn-taking.
What was truly amazing and also quite humbling to watch was the sheer focus and engagement of the class. They were totally focused on ensuring that their own version of the hierarchy would be the one we finished up with, but realised that they could only do this by using ever more intricate and persuasive arguments. Some of the arguments were really surprising. One student had seen Mr Nice and therefore made the link that fugitives often end up living in Majorca. Another student argued that he would have ended up on the Costa del Sol for similar reasons. Mexico was another strong contender due to its sharing a border with the US (there was a lot of application of geographical knowledge, and those with weaker multistructural geographical knowledge asked if they could get their planners out and use their world atlases to help them. Of course I agreed; anything to facilitate the discussion).
Suddenly, these nervous and often inarticulate students were turned into passionate, argumentative and active participants. Strangely, none of them were trying to ensure that their own destination was the one left at the top but, rather, the one that they preferred. And what had been intended as a quick 10 minute starter turned into a constructive, deeply focused discussion that led many of these students who are perceived to be particularly weak in English working at the relational, and occasionally even extended abstract, level of SOLO taxonomy. Needless to say I’m looking forward to using them again this week.
I was never taught grammar at school. By grammar, I mean taking apart and being able to identify the different parts of sentences to understand how and why the written word in English is constructed in the way it is. I think it was assumed that because we were native speakers we didn’t need the knowledge of the names and functions of different parts of the language because we had it ingrained.
But surely this goes against the aim of English teaching; it certainly goes against the way I see the aim of English teaching. Any subject’s goal is to create a new generation of subject specialists, and to do that the future specialists need to have the vocabulary and understanding of the subject’s object of study, which in English is the English language. If we don’t explicitly ensure that our students have this knowledge and understanding, we deny them the opportunity to become the very thing we are paid to encourage them to be.
I recently listened to a series of lectures by Professor Michael Drout, in which he entertainingly espouses the beauty of grammar, the importance of understanding it and the joy of playing with it. He also bemoans the serious lack of understanding that people, and even undergraduate English students, have of it. He thinks that a lot of the problem is that most of us are scared of grammar for a number of historical reasons.
The first is the sheer complexity of the English language, and in particular the numbers of rules there are, coupled with the fact that there are usually more exceptions to the rules than otherwise. But he clearly explains how each of these exceptions is down to the unique and complicated history of the language. Whereas many languages had a fairly straightforward, organic development, the English language is actually layered by the many invasions of the British Isles (he uses the metaphor of a road that centuries ago was a deer track in a forest, and then became a hunter’s path, followed by a bridleway, a B road and then a motorway. All the other incarnations are still contained within, or just under, the latest embodiment of the route). Although it shares it roots, like all Indo-European languages, with the language of a tribe living in the Kyrgyzstani area of Southern Russia, it has a series of layers which were laid down one on top of the other, beginning with British Celtic, the ancestor of Cornish, Welsh and Gaelic, which was mainly stamped out by the Roman Invasion. After the Romans left, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to migrate to this fertile land left empty by the Romans. This is the true ancestor of English, and many of our words still go back to this time. Then we have the Viking invasions, which introduced many Norse words, followed by the Norman Conquest. This already eclectic mix was added to with the growth of the British Empire and so, we effectively have at least five different grammatically and linguistically distinct systems working together, thus explaining the bewildering variety of rules and exceptions in English.
The second reason he thinks we’re scared of it is because, historically, the British Education System taught students the rules, without explaining the reasons for the rules. And if students didn’t memorise these rules they were beaten. The worst thing here is that many of the rules (like the prohibition of the split infinitive) were actually nothing to do with English and were in fact taken from Latin, the rationale being that the more English grammar could be made to fit with Latin, the better it would be. So in our collective cultural memories we still have the image of the militant, violent grammar teacher, flogging innocent children to within an inch of their lives for failing to remember the correct inflection of some obscure verb conjugation.
I had first-hand experience of the shortcomings a lack of grammatical education causes. When I left university I decided to go and be a TEFL teacher in Spain. Before this, I thought it would be a good idea to try and learn Spanish and so I went and spent three months living in Barcelona (it was only when I arrived that I discovered that Barcelona wasn’t really Spain and that the Spanish spoken there was very different to the Castilian of the south). I enrolled in a month-long intensive Spanish course and ended up in a class with two other English people and another 15 people from a variety of European countries, including Germany, Holland and Norway. As the course went on I realised that the English students were at a serious disadvantage; the other students talked comfortably to the teacher about various word classes and their position in sentences, about direct and indirect objects and about different participles and verb-tense agreements. But to us this was a whole new language, and because we didn’t have the tools (i.e. knowledge and vocabulary) to talk about these aspects of language, we fell behind very quickly.
So, what I want for my students, whether they’re in year 7 or 11, is the ability to be able to speak comfortably and confidently about the various grammatical elements so that they can move beyond this point in order to understand how the language works, and why certain word and grammar choices affect the reader in the way they do. To aid this, I’ve made a display in my room that shows the word classes and their functions, and I’m currently working on one that demonstrates how a tree diagram shows how sentences are made up of word classes, phrases and clauses. Yesterday, I spent a full lesson with a year 10 group playing about with a single sentence: Lazily, the old wizened pedlar sat at the edge of the water, gazing longingly at the distant, blue horizon. We looked at how changing certain word types changed the meaning of the whole sentence. For example, if we replaced the first adverbial with “crazily” or “furiously”, how would this change the mental image we had of what the pedlar was doing? What if we changed the preposition, for example with “on” or “under”? What I think the students began to understand was that developing an understanding of the way language works (the underlying grammar) allows students to actually have fun with the language because they can play with it. It’s like mastering the rules of any game; football, snap or chess. If you don’t know the rules and have the basic skills, it just looks like a horrible, confusing mess. But once you have the basic skills and knowledge of the rules then you can compete in the game and really start to enjoy participating. There was a lot of laughter in the lesson yesterday, particularly when thinking about the substitution of prepositions with other prepositions. Consider the phrase “Lipa jumped over the wall”. Try changing “over” to “through” or “into”. The whole meaning of the sentence is changed. And it’s not that this focus on grammar is hard to think about, it’s just that we don’t think about it explicitly often enough. This is in fact the basis of most comedy; good comedians take our basic cultural pre-programming and play with it by substituting words with unexpected ones that have the same grammatical function. The new unexpected meaning catches us out and the new, surprising mental image makes us laugh.
Hopefully then, when my new year 11s are sitting their exams next June, they will be able to write confidently about how an author’s particular choice of modal verb or adverbial phrase causes the reader to react in certain ways, and will be able to manipulate their own choices in their writing in an objective, “meta-linguistic” way. I suppose really, if I take the selfish, cynical perspective, I just want classes full of expert linguists with whom I can spend our lessons doing interesting and exciting things with language. Let’s see how it pans out.