I’ve written a few posts under the general banner of strategies to help enhance student writing and analysis, whether related to generating initial thinking, scaffolding or modelling. So, here, in one place, is a collection of some of these ideas with a sense of how they might fit alongside each other.
But, where do we begin if we want to improve how our students write about and analyse literature? I think the first steps is with the literature itself and building in really robust routines for generating thinking about the language that writers use. After all, it’s difficult to write about what we don;t know and so beginning first with facilitating better analytical routines is going to immeasurably help any future writing that may take place. One routine I use that strips this process right back and encourages students to focus on the language itself begins with the question what other words could have been used…? By embedding this routine explicitly into classroom discussions and short, targeted granular written activities students will begin to develop the foundations for more extended analysis later on.
Once these foundations have been built, I like to introduce What How Why to my students as a framework for developing both their writing and thinking about literature. This becomes, for me, a way in which to house, conceptualise, express the kind of analysis they would have started to hone. However, I also go to great lengths to focus on WHW as a thinking tool first and a writing tool second. I think this is crucial to avoiding what we might describe as the PEE-ification of WHW where we, and students, begin to see WHW as synonymous with a paragraph shaped block of writing. Here, then, we are beginning to build in more sophisticated routines for students writing about literature, using WHW to scaffold and prompt this, but we are also continuing to focus squarely on generating and shaping thinking first and foremost.
During my ongoing introduction and work with WHW, I’ll also start to introduce my students to certain sentence stems that will help to condense and clarify the ideas they will be generating. I introduce WHW first because, to me, this is the overall shape in which their thoughts might be moulded, as well as because I see it as a thinking tool more than a writing tool, but sentence stems are a great way in which to further scaffold and encapsulate student thinking. Whilst some might see such stems as a restriction or inauthentic constraint, to me they function much like a sonnet might in poetry: the shape and form they offer focuses and clarifies student writing and thinking. Besides, there is a lot of satisfaction and precision involves in calibrating one’s thoughts at the level of a finely tuned sentence, and just like WHW the intention is never for student to inhabit these stems entirely, but to move beyond the shape they confer.
As we continue thinking and writing about literature, the writing now taking place, via the prompts afforded by WHW in short and regular bursts, we also begin to think more conceptually about the texts we’re reading. Naturally, this would not happen in quite the linear fashion this post might indicate, but I will try to embed into our discussions and writing an explicit focus on what the text is doing, which might broadly be aligned to the ‘why’ of WHW. Here, we begin to think very carefully about whether text is challenging, warning, celebrating, critiquing and embed this both into our discussions and analysis.
By this point, students would be very comfortable generating their own thinking about the texts we’re looking at and this process would have been tightly connected to the kind of writing we’ve been doing. Whilst we would have done a lot of work at a more granular level, it wont be long before we might want to attempt a more extended piece of writing. It might be we do this, at first, without any ordering principle beyond that afforded by the broad shape of WHW, but I’ll also want to explicitly teach and discuss ways of structuring an entire essay. If it’s a comparative essay, then I would be sure to model and rehearse a strategy of comparison I describe as passing references.
Speaking of modelling, all throughout the above I would have been offering lots of opportunity for modelling, in which I verbalise my thought process under the visualiser, as well as live marking, but I would also want to engage with more extended model essays too. Perhaps, depending on topic, I might use this one for Macbeth or maybe either of these two responses for GCSE Unseen Poetry, Island Man or At Sea.
Before concluding, I think a short note about sequencing might be helpful. The above might give the impression these different ideas and strategies take place in the classroom in the exact sequence written about here. Of course, this isn’t the case. The classroom is a messy place and teaching is always responsive to the class in front of us. So, many of the above will naturally bleed into one another, be returned to over time, or dwelled over before moving onto the next. Whilst the way these ideas are enacted will differ from class to class and year to year, the above might offer a broad sweep of the kind of things I might be doing to help support students in their analytical writing.