Blog: Praise given, target set: next!

Doug Blog 1

This is a piece of analytical writing on the novel Of Mice and Men.  The student has started to write about the events that lead up to the fight between Curley and Lennie at the end of chapter three.   Whilst only a superficial knowledge of the novel has been demonstrated, there’s a reasonable amount to work with; more than enough for an improved second draft.  The basic points are there: they just need to be developed.  For this to happen, however, the student doesn’t simply need to reconsider the reasons for Curley’s anger and his decision to attack Lennie in more depth.  He also needs to improve the quality of his written expression.  For example, consider the areas below:

  • Imprecise verb phrase: ‘and has accused Slim of being with her.’
  • Limited range of conjunctions to link clauses and sentences: ‘chooses to fight with Lennie because…’
  • Omission of noun phrase: ‘This support that Lennie wasn’t too scared’.
  • Imprecise noun phrase: ‘George knows that Curley is in the wrong’.

The student in question is an interesting case.  He’s currently in Year 9, having joined the upper school I teach at in September.  He was born in the UK, but has Pakistani heritage; his home language is Panjabi.  He attained relatively highly in his KS2 SATs, coming out with an average 5C grade.  Like many advanced bilingual learners, he can appear to be fluent in conversational contexts, but needs additional support to develop his academic language proficiency.

Prior to writing this piece on Of Mice and Men, I encouraged the class to use a range of reporting and analysing verbs that I’d picked out.  You can see, above, that the student has used two of them (highlighted in pink): indicates and supports.  He’s also used a handful of other words that I recommended: accused, fight, threat and strength.  With this in mind, the temptation for me, the teacher, would to be to provide written feedback along the lines of:

  • WWW: Student has correctly used two reporting and analysing verbs.
  • EBI: Student needs to be able draw upon a wider range of reporting and analysing verbs to inform the next piece of writing.

It’d be neat: measured praise, alongside a visible, achievable target.  And, of course, the student does need to expand his knowledge and understanding of how reporting and analysing verbs could usefully be applied.   Job done, surely.  Or maybe not…  Has the student used indicates and supports judiciously?  How do I know that he hasn’t just used those two verbs because he picked them at random?  And does he really need to draw upon an even wider range of reporting and analysing verbs in his next piece of writing, given the limitations outlined in the four bullet-points above?  Tricky, isn’t it?  In any case, I wonder how much students ever really engage meaningfully with written comments like the ones above.

So, what to do?  To help the student make progress, I think it’s important that I plan my future lessons to ensure that…

  • I give detailed verbal feedback to the student
  • The student is aware of what needs to be changed (not necessarily what needs to be added) and what needs to be removed
  • The student has access to good quality exemplar material
  • The student is aware of at least some of the differences between his work and the stronger exemplar material.

I also need to…

  • Continue to model (and expect) ‘exam English’ spoken language
  • Focus more teaching time on grammar and the crafting of language
  • Continue to provide opportunities for extended writing.

There are clearly quite a few complex and time-consuming tasks that both the student and I need to complete.  I’m not trying to make the case here that books shouldn’t be marked or that written feedback shouldn’t be given.  I am, however, questioning the efficacy of WWW / EBI marking as a ‘one size fits all’ approach.  For example, in the case of the student’s Of Mice and Men analysis, I don’t believe that a simple set of WWW / EBI comments alone would do much to improve the quality of his writing.  There isn’t, as far as I’m aware, a handy bolt-on solution that has the power to transform writing for the better: good quality writing takes time to produce and develop.  The factors and actions involved are varied and complex and (more’s the pity) they cannot be reduced to fit into a neat two sentence formula.

In this era of accountability, it’s particularly tempting to put faith in mechanisms that appear to provide instant solutions to complex problems.  Even more so now that students are increasingly required to articulately express the exact steps they need to take in order to improve, sometimes to complete strangers.  Indeed, beyond that, many students are regularly expected to be able to expertly mark work themselves.  It’s all a bit crazy, really.  But you can understand why it’s happening…

Learning walks and performance management observations now routinely include book-looks and work scrutinies.  Where this is the case, and particularly where learning walks and observations are not undertaken by experienced subject specialists, the relatively restrictive WWW / EBI structure is perfect for overtly signifying that praise has been given, that targets have regularly been set and therefore, notionally, that a good job has been done.  After all, a visit on a learning walk might last for, say, a maximum of 10 minutes, and the standard length of a formal observation is just 30 minutes: clarity and simplicity are important when the stakes are high.

So, to conclude, nothing particularly controversial or, indeed, anything that hasn’t been blogged about (better) before: I think that too much of what we do, or are expected to do, in education focuses on the quick-fix.  And, whilst I won’t be throwing out my feedback stamps just yet, I won’t be rushing out into the sales to buy myself a new set…

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