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Making What How Why Invisible: How to Introduce WHW to Students

Last week, I was fortunate enough to present to a group of PGCE students about some of the key ideas underpinning What How Why. It was a great session and really very fun, with the group asking some really excellent questions about WHW and how we might use it. The future of English teaching is in safe hands, indeed!

After this session, I started to think about some of the points we had discussed and a really interesting, and important, idea that stayed with me was how we frame and introduce WHW to our students.

In the past, I’ve written about making this process of introduction really explicit, where I might take a whole lesson to explain what WHW is, why it’s useful, and how best to think about it. On we’d then go as, in the coming weeks, we’d start to use it more and more in our collective writing and modeling.

However, I’ve since stopped doing this. As I explained and discussed in the PGCE session, now I don’t really introduce it at all. It’s invisible. In fact, if the students were asked about ‘What How Why’ they wouldn’t really know what you meant. The idea of there being this thing we use and that we call ‘WHW’ just wouldn’t make any sense to them.

So, why is this and what do I do instead?

Why Make It Invisible?

Let’s start with the why. The problem, I think, with introducing WHW as an entity that we’ll be using to help with our writing is we ascribe to it a set of parameters. If I introduce it to the class as a discrete strategy I also have to explain what and when we’ll be using it. The obvious answer to this is ‘we use it when we’re writing’, which is what I used to say, but this is actually a rather problematic answer exactly because it isn’t simply a tool for writing. So, I’m reticent to introduce it to the class as a specific and set strategy we use because I don’t want to be forced to associate it with a specific activity we do within the lesson.

Related to this, the second major reason I no longer introduce it to my classes as a distinct approach is because that takes us one step closer to PEE, and as soon as we move WHW towards PEE any value it has immediately decreases. But, how so? Let’s imagine I take a lesson introducing WHW to students as a distinct thing that we do in English. Maybe ‘Today we’re talking about WHW’. Well, now the temptation, for me and them, is to continue to think about WHW as a separate and distinct entity. I start to say, ‘Today we’re going to be working with WHW’ or they say ‘should I use WHW to do this?’, or even ‘are we using WHW in this essay’? We move closer and closer to saying ‘Let’s write a WHW paragraph’. By framing it in this way to students, we draw a box around it so that it ceases to be a series of questions students ask themselves during writing (which is what it should be) to a thing that they do in very specific contexts within English (probably when writing an essay). We collectively begin to think about it as separate to the business of thinking about literature and it becomes more about ‘using WHW’ or ‘doing something with WHW’. I think this moves us closer to WHW mutating into PEE.

Indeed, even in the very act of referring to it as ‘WHW’ we begin, like PEE, to associate it with a specific linear mode of thinking: W then H and then W. It becomes a box. Yet, one of the best things about WHW, unlike PEE, is that it could be HWW or a consideration of ‘Why’ could come first. Yet, this flexibility becomes all the harder to inculcate if students are introduced to WHW as a specific and tangible thing that they use to write.

So, I don’t want to explicitly introduce students to WHW because by doing so I close down what it could be by turning it into a definable and discrete strategy. Instead, I want it to be a set of prompts that help students to think about literature in a manner that is similar to how expert readers think about literature, and which therefore frames and shapes how they write about literature.

How [Not] to Introduce WHW

OK, this then leaves the question what do I do instead? If I don’t introduce it to students as a standalone strategy then how do they come to know and use it?

My fundamental approach is that WHW is a thinking tool first and a writing tool second. And even when it is used to help with writing, it is not doing the work of PEE, in other words filling a paragraph shaped hole in an essay, but rather it helps to generate student thinking during the moment of their writing. Even when writing, then, it is still a thinking tool. This core idea is what informs and underpins how I use it in my classroom, and therefore its [non] introduction.

As a specific example, then, let’s say I am teaching a Y10 class An Inspector Calls. We’ve read the opening of the play, becoming familiar with some of the main ideas and characters. I now want to begin to tacitly introduce WHW, but, as above, without actually framing it as a specific thing. Perhaps I begin a class discussion using prompts such as: What do we think about Mr Birling? What do you think Priestley wants us to feel about Mr Birling? What kind of person is Mr Birling? After generating some ideas here, maybe even doing some initial writing based just on these prompts, I introduce another set of cues for us to think about together: How does Priestley make us feel this way? How does Priestley use language to present Birling as…? And then: Why do you think Priestley does this? Why is Priestley hoping we feel this way?

Now, more and more we begin to frame our discussion around these kinds of questions, albeit not exclusively, and I begin to ask students to complete short bursts of writing in response to them as well. As these cues become more embedded in classroom discussion, students become more acclimatised to thinking their way through a text using these questions as a starting point. Thinking first.

Maybe around this point, I want to begin using these prompts to shape and scaffold more extended pieces of analysis. One way I might do this is to offer students a structure strip that they tag into their books with some of them included. I could also do some live modelling, maybe in response to a specific idea within the text or a specific moment, and use the prompts myself, verbalising my response to them and how this feeds into what I decide to write. Perhaps, I tell students I’m going to write a chunk of analysis about the Inspector and how he relates to social responsibility and in the margin of my exercise book I jot down:

What does the Inspector represent about responsibility?
How does Priestley express this?
Why does Priestley want to express it in this way?

As I write, I refer back to these prompts, slowly and carefully using them to construct a coherent piece of analysis. Students begin to see how these same questions can be used to help shape written analysis. The essay therefore becomes an ongoing and organic answer to the questions that WHW poses. The prompts become a set of cues to think through, which then scaffold the writing. Thinking first, writing second.

WHW is valuable for the internal monologue it helps to provoke as students write, an internal monologue we model ourselves as we verbalise what we think: ‘OK, so I want to write about the social responsibility and to begin by thinking about the Inspector. Well, what does the Inspector seem to convey about this idea? Let’s start there. [Writing]. Now, how is Priestley doing this? Is there any image where we really see this? [Writing]. How else does Priestley convey this idea about the Inspector? Maybe this image too, which fits really nicely with the last one. [Writing]. So, now I need to think about why Priestley is doing this. What might he want the audience to think or feel and why? Is the play maybe warning us about something? [Writing].’

WHW is nothing but a series of questions we ask ourselves to which our essay becomes the written response. We are not writing a WHW paragraph, we are writing with questions we collectively refer to as WHW, but that students think of as just questions. We are not teaching WHW, we are teaching with WHW. We don’t do WHW, we do analysis. We don’t spend a lesson introducing WHW, we spend a lesson exploring the Inspector via the questions that WHW provides. There’s nothing new about these questions either, of course, and indeed the benefit to WHW is it’s how we naturally think about literature. The significant advantage that WHW offers is the process of thinking through how to embed these questions into our discussions, our scaffolding, our modelling, our teaching.

This Thing Called WHW

In all of the above, from the point of view of the student, WHW remains invisible. They might become increasingly proficient at using it, at working their way through a text with the embedded cues it offers, and all without actually knowing there is this thing English teachers talk about called ‘What How Why’. What we can, and should, explicitly teach though is a series of repeatable and recyclable sentence stems that, tweezer-like, can be picked up and placed in multiple essays. And so WHW offers an invisible shape to writing, a kind of cognitive flex that students with increasing adroitness deploy in the moment of writing and thinking. As someone described in the PGCE session, this is a process of drip-feeding. But this, I think, is a good thing. It will help to ensure WHW retains maximum flexibility, and stays far, far away from PEE.


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