How the Gradual Release of Responsibility model improved my teaching
Using research to help us utilise the ‘best bets’
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by Aspirer Research School
As the EEF guide ‘Improving secondary literacy’ states, “Reading has been shown to improve the quality of students’ writing, while writing about texts improves students’ reading comprehension and fluency.” (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/improving-literacy-in-secondary-schools/) This symbiosis between reading and writing is at the core of our English curriculum. Still, this year I faced the sobering reality of teaching narrative writing to a Key Stage 4 class who, in part thanks to a year of lockdown, had a worryingly narrow experience of reading fiction. Despite this, they needed to produce a coherent and engaging piece of narrative writing before I could award them a decent Centre Assessed Grade for their G.C.S.E. In a very limited period of time I needed to overcome their limited exposure to high quality fiction. The principles behind both the IES summary guide, ‘Teaching Secondary School Students to write effectively’ and the EEF’s own ‘Improving Secondary English’ helped me structure my approach.
High quality texts:
Regular and routine exposure to high quality literary texts was key. As the IES diagram below illustrates, good writing begins at the planning stage with a focus on ‘gathering information from reading [and] prior knowledge’. This was important – I needed to resist rushing to the more familiar ‘planning, drafting, evaluating’ and instead focus on building up my student’s knowledge of narrative beforehand – only then could they move onto ‘goal setting’ in an informed way which would result in good, quality writing of their own.
To do this, I needed some high quality literary texts with brevity and precision at their hearts. I chose the following three short stories:
Hemingway’s famous six word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (Hemingway/)
‘The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.
‘Sticks’ by George Saunders. (https://www.unm.edu/~gmartin/535/Sticks.htm)
Strand five of the EEF’s report “Combine writing instruction with reading” makes a compelling case for exposing students to the “discipline specific aspects of writing” (p25). In other words: until you have seen and understood what good writing looks like in a particular context, it is impossible to produce anything similar. Once I had chosen my texts I needed to work out how to demonstrate to my class that they were ‘good’. This is a particular challenge for narrative writing – it can feel bizarre to impose ‘rules’ on creativity. I needed to emphasise to my students that, as Alex Quigley puts it, “But what if being a great writer rests not on inspiration or some ‘magic’ bestowed on us, but the discipline of ‘deliberate practice?, with no little planning, checking and proof reading along the way?” (https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2017/02/write-like-j-k-rowling-as-easy-as‑1 – 2‑3/) and I needed a clear framework to do this.
Combining reading and writing:
‘Improving Secondary English’ recommends that students combine reading and writing using annotations to identify key aspects of the text. (p23) It suggests that a model for this is ‘Freytag’s triangle’ (see below):
This seemed to be the perfect illustration of the need for some order and discipline in narrative writing. Therefore, we sequentially read and annotated all three texts.
Starting with Hemingway’s six word story opened up a useful discussion around what made a story; whether there could really be a ‘plot’ in six words and so forth. Having gained my student’s confidence I turned their attention to ‘The Gruffalo’: they quickly identified that the squirrel’s desire to find somewhere quiet to eat his nut was the introduction, the advances of fox, snake and owl the rising action and so forth. There was a good deal of humour as my class realised that something that had initially struck them as an inaccessible academic concept could be applied to a child’s story.
George Saunder’s flash fiction, “Sticks” tells the story in just two paragraphs of a father’s descent into madness and death with gut-wrenching warmth. It is a more complex text and the different aspects of narrative structure took more time to decipher. Some excellent debate took place and it was gratifying to see students who had previously struggled to understand the shape of a story using these terms so confidently as they debated over where the climax came and the difference between the resolution and conclusion of the story.
To wrap up, we returned to Hemingway’s story. The discussion now was much richer. Could ‘For Sale’ be termed the introduction? Was ‘never worn’ really a resolution or a climax? The brevity of all three stories also appealed to the students – relieving them of the pressure they might otherwise have felt to load their storied up with acres of dialogue or description.
At this point, students were exhibiting more interest in producing their own narratives and I needed to make sure that they were able to connect what they had read with their own writing. ‘Improving Writing in Secondary English’ recommends using a clear framework to do this. Freytag’s triangle therefore remained at the core of my next lesson. Students used each section to plan their own narrative. I hoped they now understood the need for discipline – they couldn’t risk writing an endless saga filled with car chases, time gaps of several years or dream sequences. Instead, they were looking to create a tight and focussed piece of writing that could take their readers on the same sorts of journeys they had been taken on by Hemingway, Donaldson and Saunders.
The students’ short stories are due into me after the Easter holidays – hopefully none will be six words long! At this point there will no doubt be much more work to do. We will need to explore characterisation, setting, genre and so forth. Again I will return to high quality texts to do this. As Andy Tharby says “Great English teaching places great literature at the heart of every lesson.”( https://reflectingenglish.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/the-essential-ingredients-of-great-english-teaching/). The status of ‘The Gruffalo’ as ‘great literature’ is probably the subject of another blog but it is a stance that I am more than happy to take…
Aspirer Research School ELE
Using research to help us utilise the ‘best bets’
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