On countless occasions, I’ve heard colleagues worry about the potentially dry skills they have to teach as part of adjusting to the new English Language specification – particularly when preparing students for AQA paper 2. Let’s be honest, synthesis, analysis and comparison are not the sort of skills that your average teenager is intrinsically motivated to master. Promising dubious students that these are the sorts of skills that are going to make them incredibly employable in the future is similarly futile; who is motivated by their distant future’s self to write a precise report synthesising information from different sources?
And we’re not always helped by the exam board either. Inevitably, a well prepared department planning the effective delivery of these skills begins with the exam papers and works backwards. The source material offered in the specimen papers is accessible but not always a joy to read. Drawing on student experiences of school and family is sensible but again, not the most thrilling starting point for a lesson.
Of course, if we are complaining that our course is a bit dry then we really only have ourselves to blame. The wonderful thing about English Language is the total and utter freedom to use whatever themes, topics and activities we want to – and we must. If we start schemes of learning off in Year 10 with timed exam practices we are missing the crucial opportunity to develop these skills with depth. Synthesising sources is a genuinely useful and interesting – I can think of countless examples of how I use it in my day to day existence as a Head of Department and at home (I’m currently organising a wedding) but I can’t think of any time I have had to do it in 10 minutes. Nor with only two sources….
So with this in mind here are some ideas for using ‘Extreme Encounters’ as a thematic way in to look at Paper 2 skills, not in timed exam blocks, but unashamedly long and complex explorations of these skills over several lessons; if students can create a detailed report on different elements of five different animal attacks, a 10 minute summary of two texts will be no problem when they get to Year 11. The theme doesn’t really matter but this is a topic that seems to be universally popular across different classes and abilities. Plus it allows me to use lots of the ‘Guardian Experience’ articles which I think are a wonderful resource for all English teachers. I challenge you to describe any lesson as dry when it starts with an article with the title: ‘I was swallowed by a hippo’…
If you would like a copy of any of the tried and tested resources mentioned here do drop us an e-mail at email@example.com and we’re happy to share the resources mentioned. We’d also love to hear about any topics that are working with your students in the comments below.
Teaching Retrieval and Synthesis
- Instead of teaching ‘summary and synthesis’ launch an investigation. Set your GCSE group up as journalists and commission them to research and write up a comment piece about whether or not sharks are misunderstood. They’ll need to investigate a number of views and collect facts, opinions and attitudes from factual and more biased pieces of writing. Our students read about the controversy around the Australian shark cull, accounts of shark attacks and an account of someone feeling that her experience with sharks saved her from a dangerous diving accident. They eventually drew these together into a comment piece full of inferences, evidence and comparison.
- If you have a class that will enjoy a little genuine jeopardy and gore, read a range of accounts of animal attacks. I’ve used the brilliant Guardian Experience articles available here to offer accounts of a bear attack, seal, hippo, tiger, lion and dolphin. Ask students to produce a leaflet that synthesises the information they have read into a blog post advising travellers on what to do if they encounter a hostile creature. It’s also a great opportunity to explore some of the genre conventions of travel writing and for able students, to explore the subtlety of audience, tone and strategies to advise and engage an audience effectively can be really fun.
- Practise the crucial inference skills needed for synthesis by exploring attitudes to tigers over the centuries. We use a great 19th century account of how to keep tigers as pets and contrast it with a modern attack that took place in a sanctuary. There are some brilliant articles about Michael Jackson and how the animals of ‘Neverland’ were kept if you want to give students opportunities to infer journalist’s attitude to ‘Thriller’ the tiger and ‘Bubbles the monkey. This article in the Independent archives is a great place to start and also contrasts well with the 19th century source:
- Another aspect of extreme encounters are thrill seeking experiences. This well written review of a ‘Zombie Fun Run’ always gets students’ attention – many of them are really keen to sign up despite the journalist’s horrific reflection on the whole experience. You can find a copy of the article here or e-mail us for a pack of all the articles mentioned. Take elaborate lines and explore them in detail on the board. You can model saying ‘a lot about a little’ and exploring patterns in the imagery that the writer uses.
- Break the article up into small sections and stick them in the middle of large sheets of sugar paper. If you organise students into groups give them 1 minute to annotate extracts and then move them on. By the time each group has written on each sheet you end up with the whole class’ ideas on each small section of text. Students can follow this up by sorting through the comments and looking for the perceptive and interesting comments to write about.
- One of the best ways to analyse other writers is to produce your own writing. Challenge students to review an imaginary ‘extreme experience’. Show them a stimulus like a virtual reality trailer, an escape room or a horror evening (York HallowScream event has an excellent trailer which our students love because it’s local) students can then write an analysis of their own writing or their peers, focusing on their word choices with the same reverence and level of depth that we do professional writers; it’s a powerful experience for students to see their own writing being taken so seriously and to discuss what they were trying to achieve with particular word choices.
- To write a really good comparison, students need to confidently pick out attitudes and ideas as well as the methods they use to do this. Play ‘Articulate’ with methods to revise the range of devices that they might encounter. This game (just like the board game version) is easily created by making a set of cards labelled with linguistic devices. Students take a card at a time and have to convey the word printed on it to the rest of their team without using any part of it.
- The best way to master the comparison is to show students how to do it with strongly contrasting articles at first. Our students enjoyed reading polarised views on climbing Mount Everest (particularly after we whetted their appetite with some clips from the recent blockbuster and some debates about the morality of mountain climbing). We read articles about climbing Everest and first practised comparing the attitudes by having verbal debates. We linked this process to what they might do in the exam.
- Another good way to build confidence with the comparison skills is to divide the class in half and get each group to take on a different view and write up an argument. Half of my class wrote an argument that extreme sports are thrilling and life affirming while the other half wrote about how they are indulgent and unnecessarily dangerous. Each group had to make sure they included five clear attitudes and made a list of the methods they had used to convey their arguments (they actually picked what they wanted to include from Articulate). Students could then pair up and write their comparisons together – they had the support of knowing their own attitudes and methods which helped them in taking those preliminary steps towards mastering this skill.
Finally, We can’t do anything about the final exams that AQA choose to put together; they are bound by all sorts of copyright and accessibility restrictions which the humble classroom teacher is not. Putting together mock papers is easy in the world of google and with brilliant groups happily haring ideas, articles and resources; we can offer students genuinely engaging source materials to practise their developing skills upon. If you would like a copy of the articles mentioned here or the scheme of work that goes with it, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org