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For the Love of Tables: Building Success in English Language

GCSE English Language poses an interesting challenge for the English teaching community. On the one hand, it has the potential to provoke frustration and confusion in equal measure, with questions not saying what they really mean and it assessing knowledge about surf boards, as opposed to, say, English Language. Yet, within this, there is also a kind of pedagogic stimulation, a challenge: how can we as teachers invent ways of teaching English Language that seems to circumvent its apparent limitations? This becomes a kind of pedagogic puzzle. We want to ensure our students are effective, well-prepared and motivated, but we have to engineer such a circumstance almost, at times, in spite of the very thing being taught. But, how to do this?

There is also another impulse at play in thinking about English Language in this way. Without any specific body of knowledge to teach, it can often be difficult to motivate students when teaching English Language. In an excellent article (‘What is the best way to motivate students in your subject?’) for Impact Adam Boxer makes the case that often the most effective way to motivate students is to ensure they are competent. Success breeds success. If students experience success then they will begin to feel competent and if they feel competent they will probably begin to enjoy the subject more. So, in the absence of interesting characters to discuss or themes to navigate, what we can do is to try to make students as competent as possible within English Language.

There are many different directions in which we could continue this post: the above challenge leaves itself a lot of scope. However, here at least, I’m going to concern myself with just one strategy: making effective use of table templates to help students to plan and co-ordinate both their thinking and writing. These are specific tables for each question that students would create just before writing their response and after marking up their extract in the normal way. The intention here, as explained below, is to clarify thinking, reduce cognitive overload and split attention brought about by a messily annotated text, and have all material available at a single glance directly above where they will write their answer. So, on with the tables…

P1 Q2 (and P2 Q3)

We begin with a really simple and straightforward table and admittedly lots of students will not need it, but it does serve a useful function for those that like it. The idea is simple: after marking up the specified passage, students draw the below table/s. They then input the 3 or 4 images they intend to look at from the passage into the table. They then put the extract to one side and write their response, focussing just on the information now in the table. Why do this? Indeed, we can begin to think further about why we might use tables at all.

1. A big benefit to using tables is that it strips information out of the otherwise messy and heavily annotated extract and places it into a clean and neat table, which contains, in one glance, everything students now need to answer the question. There is, I suspect, a lot of extraneous cognitive load in using a heavily annotated and scribbled extract when also trying to think about what and how to write a response. It’s distracting. There’s also the possibility of a lot of split attention, with students moving from extract to response on a probably cramped exam desk. By placing everything in the table they now have just a single point of reference with clearly delineated material with which to then answer the question.

2. Marking up the extract and then inputting it into their quickly drawn table forces students to have a second pass at the material they are selecting. Rather than hurriedly writing the response with the images they instinctively notice, they have that extra moment of consideration. Do I want to include this image in the table? Is this the best image to use? This slows down their thinking.

3. In any given passage there will almost certainly be lots of different images to select and lots of different analytical routes to take. I think the key to success in these language analysis questions is curating a specific path through the extract in response to the question. This means selecting three or four images that fit together and that allow the student to make an overall and cohesive point about the extract. Placing the information in the table allows them to better see that pattern: image 1 fits with image 2 which fits with image 3. If looking just at the extract it can be tempting to thinking about it purely chronologically, sometimes selecting an image based on proximity rather than thematically connecting to the previous and next image.

On a related note, I would argue this exact same technique can be used to help plan P1 Q3 (structure). However, in many ways, the above points and their benefits are amplified for this question. For a response that needs to be highly attuned to sequence and shifting perspectives across a single piece of writing, being forced to consider the moments to discuss and then add them to a table really heightens or helps to draw attention to an understanding of narrative progression, which is what this question is all about.

Reading this back, I feel this is a lot of justification for what amounts to drawing a table and filling it with some words. I can appreciate some students, perhaps teachers too, will think it’s a bit of a waste of time, but then this is the premise of the post: devising ways of making our students that little bit more effective and that little bit more competent. Marginal gains compound.

P1 Q4

Of all the planning tables I use for Paper 1 and Paper 2 this one, I think, is the best and most helpful. In fact, this was one the original table, with all others following.

First, though, the table only makes sense in the context of how I teach students to approach this question. I explain that the question will always involve them responding to a statement and that this statement includes two aspects to it, A and B. They also need to evaluate this statement by explaining or arguing an analytical point of view in relation to it. They can agree with both elements, disagree with both, or suggest some variation of partial agreement. As a side point, I’ve seen a lot of comments about this question refer to its evaluative element as evaluating the writer, but I’ve always taken it to mean students are evaluating the statement and whether or not they agree. Regardless, in order to sustain and justify an analytical point of view they will need to comment on how the writer shapes meaning, likely through their use of language, but it could be structure too. So, I suggest, like with P1 Q2, they aim to explore three images for each aspect of the statement, with each image providing an opportunity to suggest why they hold the position they do. This is an essay, then, of two halves: an analytical response to statement A and an analytical response to statement B, arriving at and maintaining an overall point of view.

So, how exactly is the table helping with this? The top row (spread across the two columns) offers a space in which students can jot down their position in regards to each statement: agree, disagree, partial agreement. There is space to do this for both statement A and statement B, given they do not need to hold the same view for both. There’s then two main columns with three rows in each and this offers space in which to input the specific images/moments students have decided to focus on, extracted from their marked up text, and in relation to statement A as well as statement B. Now, with this table complete, when students come to answer this question they have everything they need in one place and at a single glance.

Even better, the table contains not only the material to explore, but also the essay structure in which to explore them. The top two rows becomes the introduction (helping to express an overall position in relation to the full student statement by parsing a point of view about both A and B) and then the columns become the first and second half of the rest of the response, one examining images relevant to statement A and the other statement B. This then also means, rather neatly, each half of the response, one to A and one to B, functions just like the 8 mark language analysis question, and even uses the same table format. This offers a rather pleasing symmetry! A disclaimer though: this is not to say students can’t discuss structure or that they shouldn’t and that would be inputted into the table in the usual way.

I have found this format to massively help with this question, both with clarifying thinking and cohesion of response, but also making sure students maintain a clear point of view and offer a fair response to both aspects of the statement. The 1 minute it takes to draw the table and then couple of minutes to fill it in are well repaid in the quality of response it helps to produce.

P1 Q5

Unlike the previous questions, in some ways the table for Creative Writing is incidental: they could plan it using a table format or not, but the table isn’t in itself necessarily adding anything to their thinking. Yet, given the other questions utilise a table structure and this question certainly isn’t harmed by structuring planning in this fashion, I do encourage it.

The basic planning format I advocate for creative writing, after some initial thinking about point of view or overall tone, is Drop, Zoom, Flash End, as outlined in the below poster.

So, when it comes to planning their response I ask them to work through the following prompts in order to begin generating their thinking:

The bottom two cues then help to capture information about the big picture of their piece (for example, a concept they may wish to convey like time, age or nature) as well as a motif (a repeated image or phrase), with the first three cues prompting them to think about POV and tone.

It is true all of this thinking could just as easily be done whilst being scribbled on a piece of paper, but I have found using the table format offers an additional prompt to help remember the kinds of things to be thinking about. If they remember, for instance, planning creative writing involves scribbling a table with four quadrants this will make sure they’re more likely to think about all aspects of their piece. But, as ever, the table format is flexible and not mandatory: some will use it for this question, some won’t. All it is doing, as I explain to them, is offering a shape to their initial thinking. The thinking itself will be the same, with or without a table.

P2, Q2

We now return to a question where I think the table format does have a significant positive impact on both clarity of response and initial thinking.

The idea here is for students to quickly extract relevant information from the two sources and place it in the table: an overall point of difference and evidence from each source that would substantiate this difference. They now have everything they need to answer this question.

Here’s how to use the table: the top row simply becomes the opening sentence of the response. We then look at the column for Source A and work our way down, jumping from one piece of evidence to the next. As we do so, we build in points of inference using phrases such as ‘…, which might infer’ or ‘…from which we might conclude’. It is also possible to bundle columns so that two points of evidence are effectively referenced simultaneously, with a point of inference relating to both. We then signpost similarity or difference (In direct contrast to Source A…) and work our way through the second column, again including inference as we move through each piece of evidence.

The benefit to this table is that it offers a structure not only to our writing, but our thinking too, restricting the amount of evidence we can use, prompting us to select carefully. By displaying all the information in one glanceable table it also helps students to better make connections and to spot patterns of difference or similarity.

The 10 seconds it takes to draw the table and the extra couple of minutes to extract the relevant information is, to my mind, well worth it for the added concision and quality of inference this support helps to produce.

P2 Q4

For this question, I basically use the same table structure as Q2 x2, but we deploy them in a different way. So, here are the tables:

The top row is the same as in Q2 and is designed to identify an overall difference or similarity, but the content will differ as in this question there is typically a focus on perspectives or feelings. Again, we then have three or four rows divided between a column for each source, A and B. Same structure, but different use. We extract from the sources images we might like to explore or analyse. Rather than phrases such as ‘…from which we might conclude’ we use more traditional methods of analysis, for instance considering the overall feeling expressed by the given image and why this word and not another one. As we move down the table, we use Janus-faced transitions to knit the argument together (The writer’s feeling that Y is further suggested by X…) and again include a clear shift to the second source (This is in direct contrast to…).

However, for this question, a variation on how to use this table might be to interleave the analysis. After we select relevant images from Source A and we are ready to look to Source B, we might try to match the two so each row offers a link, like the below.

Rather than moving according to column (all of A followed by all of B, with links back) students could move according to row (all of the first row, all of the second row, and so on). I don’t find this as effective, but it might be useful for this question where a focus on both writers at the same time can be helpful.

Given this question is worth 16 marks, I suggest students include a second area of difference/similarity in terms of feeling or perspective, and therefore another table. As such, the entire question is two lengthy paragraphs, each one governed by a single table that identifies an overall area of comparison.

P2 Q5

As with Paper 1, the table for this question isn’t really doing much cognitive heavy lifting, but equally students need to plan in some way and this works as well as its alternatives.

I teach students to approach this question with a basic shape in mind, which that can be adapted and modified depending on the specific question:

As such, when they come to plan I typically encourage them to scribble down a quick mind map to work out what their genuine response is to the question and why they think what they think.

They then divide a page or half a page into four quadrants (this is the table) and under each of the four above headings jot down initial plans and ideas.

They can then refer back to this table as they write, making sure they retain the broad shape of the response, but being constantly attentive to whether the tone they are adopting fits the given task.

A Word of Caution

Whilst I think these table formats are a great way of scaffolding the two language papers, both in terms of student thinking and writing, and I also think they provide a net positive in the exam itself, I would issue caution for how to use them.

I would not advocate using these kind of exam-specific tables from day one of the GCSE. Rather, I would sequence preparation so a significant chunk of the GCSE is targeted towards reading and enjoying a range of fiction and non-fiction. Whilst doing this students should become very comfortable with thinking about broader questions such as: What idea does the text seem to convey? How does the text do this? Why might the writer want us to think this? Only once students are really confident with this kind of thinking, would I turn my attention to the exam questions.

However, once I am in that position and do want to begin preparation on the exam itself, then I’ve found these tables to be a great way to introduce, co-ordinate, and optimise student responses.


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