The What How Why of WHW: Introducing and Using ‘What How Why’

Several years before becoming a secondary school teacher, I taught at university whilst completing a PhD and did a lot of private tutoring on the side. I didn’t have many resources but I did have one that I would use with all of my university classes and tutees: a single side of A4 with three columns, one for ‘What’, one for ‘How’ and one for ‘Why’. In these columns I had listed various questions I thought it was important students should think about.

It just seemed to me, and still very much does, the most obvious and natural way to begin thinking about literature. What is the text expressing? How exactly does the writer express this? Why might they express it in this way? I think this resource may have been used a little when I did start to teach at secondary level, but it quickly became drowned out by this thing call ‘PEE’, something I had never encountered before. Years passed and whilst I may have referred in teaching to the basic concept of ‘what, how, why’, it just faded out of my practice.

Imagine then my surprise and interest when I joined Twitter years later and read Becky Wood’s excellent post on WHW and PEE. I hadn’t ever considered it was something being used by other people or that it was a ‘thing’. I quickly started using it again, but now more explicitly than I ever did before. It’s now a major part of my teaching and increasingly I notice it being discussed. This is, in my mind, a very good thing.

So, here, then are my thoughts on ‘What, How, Why’, somewhat predictably based around three questions:

1) What is it?
2) How do you introduce it to your students?
3) Why should we use it?


WHAT is it?

In its most basic sense ‘What How Why’ describes a way of writing and thinking about literature (the ‘and’ here is what makes this so much better than alternatives like PEE, but more on that later). It is both a template for writing about texts and a set of cognitive prompts to help scaffold and generate student thinking and response.

Whilst there are of course many variations, these prompts, which constitute the foundation of the approach, might look something like this:

WHAT:

  • What does the text make me feel?
  • What tone is being established?
  • What emotion does the text convey?
  • What thought it being established?
  • What idea is being expressed about a certain character?
  • What theme or idea is the text expressing?

HOW:

  • How does the writer make me feel a certain way?
  • How is the tone established?
  • How does the text convey a certain emotion?
  • How does the writer use certain methods?
  • How is the thought being expressed?
  • How is the idea about the character being expressed?
  • How does the text express the theme or idea?

WHY:

  • Why does the writers want to make you feel that way?
  • Why does the writer seek to establish that tone?
  • Why does the writer convey that emotion?
  • Why does the writer use language in that way?
  • Why is the thought expressed in that way?
  • Why does the writer express the idea about the character in that way?
  • Why does the writer express the theme or idea in that way?

Thus, WHW describes a series of prompts that could be aimed at a single word, an entire image, a passage or moment, or indeed an entire text and that could be used to scaffold student thinking as well as the mechanics of writing. It effectively seeks to prompt students to answer: What is the text doing? How is it doing it? Why is it doing it in that way?


HOW do you introduce it to your students?

There are a few things within my teaching that I make sure to script before stepping into the classroom. This is usually because I want to make sure my explanation is as perfect and clear as it can be and because I anticipate I will be re-using that explanation and so the return on time investment is very much worth it. Introducing WHW to my students for the first time is one such scripted explanation. So, here then, in broad terms, is the script I use.

I begin by explaining that whether Y7 or GCSE or A Level or university, What How Why is a way to frame how we think about, write about and read literature. I point out that a lot of what I’m about to cover is probably something they already do sub-consciously (the fact this is likely true is another nail in the coffin for PEE, for which, I’d argue, is certainly not natural), but that I want to make that process explicit.

I then begin by explaining each one in turn and introducing them to the prompts with which they will become very familiar. As I talk through these prompts, I’ll try to verbalise them in relation to whatever text we’re currently studying. As a side note, I wouldn’t introduce this immediately upon starting teaching the class, but likely a few weeks in after we’ve done so preparatory work on analytical sentence stems and embedding quotations.

Beginning, then, with WHAT, this is what I would show them and talk through:

And then HOW:

And finally WHY, all the time talking them through the prompts, connecting to the text we’re currently studying so that it is effectively a live modelled example of how they apply:

As I’m talking them through this, I make the point that the questions remain the same irrespective of age, often saying they’re the exact questions I would ask myself when I read something, but the answers may change in sophistication depending on how finely calibrated and well practised our analytical skills are. This is another reason I like WHW as a general methodology, since it aligns perfectly with the ethos of ‘teaching to the top’. The fundamental questions I’m asking a Y7 are the same fundamental questions I would ask of a GCSE student which are the same fundamental questions I’d ask of myself.

After walking them through these prompts, I then try to condense it as simply and clearly as possible, arriving at the below:

I finally explain that the process can be applied to the smallest part of a text, for instance, a word, line or image, but also to the entire text. As I’m explaining this, I will probably doodle an image with one small circle inside a larger circle to help capture the point.

Now, depending on how much time I’ve got left, I may move onto the second stage of introducing WHW immediately or return to it in a future lesson. If in a future lesson, I’ll begin with a couple of retrieval questions (‘What might you be thinking about when looking at WHAT’ or ‘Let’s think about this image from Macbeth, how would you approach WHAT in relation to it’). But, let’s imagine I have the time to move straight onto the second stage. What happens next?

I take an interesting image or word from whatever text we’re studying and generate a discussion where we apply the above prompts to the image. Using the I do—We do—You do maxim, we’ve effectively already done ‘I do’ when I talked them through the prompts, anchoring them to a given image, and so this is the ‘we do’, which amounts to guided class discussion of an image we would have already looked at in a past lesson.

There’s a couple of things going on here. First, I want us to begin just by applying WHW as a cognitive process and a way of thinking about the given image. The writing will come soon, but part of the beauty of WHW is that it can be used as a thinking tool and I want to foreground this from the start. By selecting an image we’re already reasonably familiar with, I’m trying to remove any extraneous cognitive load so that we can just focus on applying the procedure itself. As we proceed through the course, I’ll use WHW a lot during class discussion to prompt students to think their way through a particular image or moment in the text and so I want to build familiarity with that process. Depending on how it goes, I might do this a couple more times.

I would also ask them to apply this thinking process independently, perhaps by providing a further image and specifying the prompts I wish them to use (‘What does this image make you feel? How does X word make you feel that? Why do you think he writer uses that specific word?’) They can write their answers down to this, but not in any particular format. I’m still interested in the extent to which they are thinking through their response using the prompts afforded by WHW. There’s then be opportunities to sample the room and offer any relevant feedback.

I would imagine by this point, if not before, the lesson is over and so we can assume that what comes next will not be in the same lesson as when I first introduced WHW. The next step, once I’m happy students are familiar with using WHW as a cognitive process, is to introduce it as written scaffold. Here, we revert back to the I/We/You model, beginning again since we have not had any opportunity yet to write using WHW.

We begin with me specifying another image from the text we’re studying and again discussing it as a group, using WHW to guide this discussion. However, now, unlike last time, I take these ideas and live model WHW as a written product, a short paragraph. What I’m hoping will happen is a little moment within the class is an expression of ‘Ahhhh, I can write with it as well as discuss it’, and forever may the two be wedded together. This live modelled paragraph might look something like this:

Following the I/We/You format, I’ll then select another image and we’ll do the same thing again, but this time I’ll pause and ask students to suggest next steps or ask them to edit as we go. Then, finally, a further image, but this time they’ll do it on their own, and I’ll show call or live mark a couple afterwards. In order to help with this, I would have, by now, handed out the below bookmark that can be tagged into books:

My hope after this sequence of introductory lessons is that students are confidently able to:

1. Use WHW as a series of prompts to think through an image or moment in a text, and this kind of discussion will be woven into the kinds of questions I ask
2. Use WHW as a series of prompts to write about an image or moment in a text, and this kind of written activity will be embedded into future lessons, gradually at first, but eventually becoming the foundation of extended essay writing.

Of course, we will continue to develop and build on this and return to earlier steps if needed as well as there being lots of opportunity for added practice. This might take the form of further live modelling or perhaps a Do Now that asks them to write a short WHW paragraph about Y. It would also come in the form of future essay preparation where we focus on and deconstruct effective use of WHW as a writing frame. In this way too future WCF would often be anchored to the ongoing use and development of WHW.

However, staying with the idea that WHW is as much, if not more so, a thinking frame as well as a writing one, we would also begin to build it into classroom discussion. It might be for example I use the WHW prompts as a way to scaffold discussion of a specific image or perhaps paired elaborative-interrogative routines that are framed through the same cues. It might also become a form of retrieval where I ask students, for example, ‘what is the idea behind Blake’s London?’, ‘how does Blake express this with examples from the poem?’, ‘picking one of those examples why does he express it in that way?’

The point is that we begin to build thinking about and through WHW into routine classroom activity, both for our thinking about the texts and how we write about them. I would also hope to see, in time, students beginning to play with the format, perhaps by starting with Why and then move to How, or similar.


WHY should we use it?

I doubt anyone would argue against using prompts to help cue student thinking or against using writing scaffolds. I suppose, then, the more pertinent question might be why use WHW as opposed to an alternative like PEE or PEEL.

This is certainly a very reasonable question, especially as the two, on the surface at least, seem very similar. Both WHW and PEE provide a structure or template for writing about literature. You can model a PEE paragraph like you might model a WHW paragraph. But, there are, to my mind, some crucial differences.

The differences stems from the fact that unlike PEE (and its variants) WHW is organic to the way in which we already write and think about literature. It flows out of our disciplinary traditions in a way PEE doesn’t. It models the same process that we as expert readers go through, often without realising, when we encounter a text for the first time.

For instance, when we think about a text we probably already ask ourselves very naturally and authentically:

What does it make me feel?
What is happening?
What is the text doing?

How is it doing it?
How is language being used here?
How is this structured?
How am I being made to feel this way?

Why does the writer do it in that way?
Why use that word and not another?
Why make us feel that way?

What we almost certainly don’t ask ourselves, tucked up in bed reading a book, is ‘what point can I make?’, ‘What is the evidence to support this point?’, ‘How can I explain or analyse this evidence?’

PEE is an artificial addendum, something added to the process of thinking about literature to satisfy an external body. It is not germane to our thinking about texts, but a mechanistic and reductive supplement.

The best writing about literature is the codified expression of our conceptual working through of what we’ve read. WHW is part of this conceptual working through, it grows out of it, it is it. PEE is not.

In other words, WHW begins with the ideas we have about literature and our reaction to it and finds a way to translate this to written expression. It a a set of prompts designed to scaffold and make explicit the already existent process of expert reading we hope to generate in our students. PEE, though, begins with a desire to produce paragraphs of writing and works backwards.

WHW is a conceptual template, PEE an essay template. WHW is a movement through the texts we study, PEE a movement over and on top of them. WHW places texts first, PEE begins and ends with a paragraph.

More than this, though, PEE only really makes sense if you already know what you want to say, in which case how much use is it anyway? What point? What evidence? What analysis? It doesn’t actually provide a starting point for thinking about any of these things, assuming, as it does, you already know what you wish you say, but not the order in which to a paragraph it.

Yet, WHW does provide such a starting point. It’s not an empty procedure to be applied but in itself a set of cues for working through one’s reaction to the text. Any reader can, and should, ask ‘what does this make me feel?’ ‘How does it make me feel this way?’ ‘Why might this be?’

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