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Helping students plan extract questions in GCSE English

In 1991, Collins et al. published “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible”, and since reading this it has immeasurably impacted my practice – no more so than in terms of teaching students the thinking processes that occur at this first stage of writing an exam response in Literature.

In essence, the paper purports that for teachers, experts in their discipline, this disciplinary thinking has become second nature; however, for apprentices of English this will not be the case, and therefore requires teachers to teach in a manner where such complex thinking is visible to our students.

This year I have worked hard to ensure that my students engage in the right thinking processes when it comes to planning an essay response – especially where an extract is given as a springboard to an extended essay e.g. Starting with this extract, explore how Shakespeare presents aggressive male behaviour [in Romeo and Juliet].

The extract: gift or hindrance?

On the surface, the extract appears to be a gift for students – they have a section of the text to engage with, no quotation recall is necessary – but, here are the obstacles I find students stumble over:

  • Spending a long time trying to decode the language employed by Shakespeare in the extract
  • Focusing on words they do not know; rather than what they do know
  • Relying heavily, or sometimes solely, on the extract and not developing a wider range of ideas

Below is an example of how I tackle this.

The ‘crossing out method’

The first steps we follow as a class are:

1. Identify where the extract comes from in relation to the narrative of the play e.g. Act 3, the climax, the turning point.

2. Ignore the extract initially and jump straight to the question to identify the question focus e.g. aggressive male behaviour

3. Highlight a lines that students feel might be relevant to this focus

4. Then, crucially, cross out anything that has not been highlighted

So, how is this different from merely highlighting key information, I hear you ask?

I offer two reasons: firstly, it is a cathartic experience that illustrates to students that you cannot (nor should one attempt to) write about everything and secondly, it reduces cognitive load in terms of decoding difficult language, whilst also teaching students the need to judiciously select relevant information. Below is how this might look:

Romeo and Juliet – Final Assessment

Read this extract from Act 3 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet and answer the question that follows.

At this point in the play, Romeo has discovered Mercutio is dead and Tybalt returns. Romeo fights Tybalt.

Starting with this extract, explore how Shakespeare presents aggressive men in the play.

Write about:

·   How Shakespeare presents aggressive men in this extract.

·   How Shakespeare presents aggressive men in the play as a whole.

     [30 marks] | AO4 [4 marks]

Here, I have modelled that there are two central ideas (1 and 2) to engage with from the extract linked to the highlighted lines from the extract, and the rest is not needed to answer this question.

As a class, we then discuss what we look at specifically in relation to that line with a quick bullet point list:

1. R blames his love for J for making him ‘effeminate’ that affects his masculine traits of aggression using ‘valour’s steel’.

2. Metaphor – willing aggression into his very being to give him strength to kill T

A student writing in a notebook and on sticky notes at their desk.

The text as a whole

The last piece of the puzzle is modelling how we write about the rest of the text – beyond the extract.

I like to keep this simple and add ideas to our bullet point list, drawing from students’ knowledge of the text. As a rule-of-thumb I suggest they should aim for up to five­ ideas for any given question, so in this particular example, we would need three more.

This is what I pop up on the screen:

1. R blames his love for J for making him ‘effeminate’ that affects his masculine traits of using ‘valour’s steel’ – more aggressive than he’s been.

2. Metaphor – willing aggression into his very being to give him strength to kill T

3. ?

4. ?

5. ?

How you do this will depend on your learners. In the earliest stage of teaching this approach, teachers should live model and script their thinking processes. You then may move on to guided practice before finally fading scaffolding to the point where students can tackle this independently.

Whilst this might seem laborious – it is all about longer-term gains. If we model the thinking process effectively at the planning stage, students will ultimately begin to write better essays. As Friar Lawrence says: ‘Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast’.

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