Nuts and Bolts: teaching academic writing

This is a short blog that outlines how I have been teaching analytical response this year. It is by no means the finished product, but I have been able to work with this to demystify the process for students, whilst also enabling those with more confidence to use a structure that doesn’t appear to hinder, as I find some frameworks result in doing. This approach relies and is inspired by What, how, why, to which I would direct you to Becky Wood’s blog, and Claire Hill has also written about this previously.

I used what, how, why as a levelling up exercise with students; this tends to work pleasingly well for the Language paper in particular, so this is where I will draw my example. The one mark questions start us at the ‘what’ starting block, where we need to identify words or information, but very little beyond that. The ‘how’ questions require us to incorporate both ‘what,’ and ‘how’ to develop a response.

We have spent a great deal of time this year identifying how to select our quotations and cluster them for a response before writing; this is a vital stage of the process, because often, students select poor quotations, which then leads to poor analysis. Whilst it is not entirely relevant to this blog, it is probably worth lingering over that for a moment, as it assists later on. I teach three guidelines for quotation selection in the hope of distilling what we do: avoid nouns over other, more fulfilling words for analysis, notice repetition or emphasis of repeated ideas, and seek out figurative language. As we read, we look for more than we need (as the examiner will always provide us with far more fodder than chanting ‘5-7 quotations’ to ourselves as we read) but then we can refine and categorise later. By picking out everything that we think may be useful, it ensures that students select according to criteria as a separate task, as opposed to quotation counting, which distracts from the quality of the quotation. To use an example, I’ve drawn from the Nik Wallenda article from last year’s Eduqas paper 2, which is attached at the end of this blog.

Within the article, there are OODLES of figurative quotations. We work through, circling all ideas that we feel can relate to the analytical question (which is, ‘How does the writer try to show that Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk was astonishing and dramatic?’). Here, we have repeated references to the ‘mist’ in different contexts; the audience both ‘erupted and ‘roared,’ and Wallenda is described as ‘perched precariously,’ to name a few. I could go on, but students identify twelve or more quotations. From this point, we then need to categorise our ideas into three key aspects of the text that we can then use to start to form a structure: Wallenda, the water, and the crowd all contribute to the drama and astonishment. Instead of deliberating over which quotations to choose, the work is in filtering afterwards, through finding connections with what they have identified.

Students then start to categorise their quotations into these three key aspects, and write about each one in turn. It avoids what the exam report referred to when, ‘ still too many adopted the ‘feature-spotting’ route, desperately searching for the next ‘feature,’ and instead, places an emphasis on categorising quotations into thematic clusters, which makes for meaningful analysis later on.

Each section opens with its own thesis statement, before moving into a what, how structure, but again, this is further deconstructed as a ‘levelling up’ process.

  1. We open with a thesis statement: one sentence that captures our argument. What it is that we are considering within the text.

The writer creates a sense of astonishment within the text through an astute depiction of the crowd, the water, and Wallenda as his walks the tightrope. The depiction of the crowd is a vital aspect of the text in creating drama. 

We use one of the signpost words, we use the word ‘through’ as it is specific enough to be analytical, but not specific enough to invite those students in to list every technique they found in the text, and we outline the three aspects of the text that we plan to explore in turn.  Then, the use of vital/essential/key/significant/important cements our assertion in our first section. Voila. Nothing fancy, no room for waffle.

2. Next, we use what, how to clarify our analysis. The ‘what’ is our quotation, and use of terminology. The ‘how’ moves to analyse how the astonishment and drama are present.

The text states:

A crowd of over 125,000 people packed the roads by the falls – some waiting more than 12 hours to watch the historic performance – and they erupted with cheers as Wallenda ran the last few steps to the safety of the platform anchored in Canadian turf. 

“The most amazing part was when he was on the wire and he was waving at the people,” said eight year-old William Clements, jumping up and down with excitement as Wallenda knelt down on the wire toward the finish, took a hand off his balance bar and waved.

He said that he could see the thousands of camera flashes as he approached and
heard the roar of the crowd only once he was almost safely across.

Students are encouraged to scatter the quotations, but still within the remit of the response structure: what, how, double up, branch off. An example:

The figurative use of the verb, ‘erupted’ used to depict the crowd highlights their support and excitement at the completion of such a feat. The verb, ‘jumping’ to describe super-fan William Clements depicts the admiration of the audience overall, alluding to their hysteria and idolisation of Wallenda, and the inclusion of a direct quotation only emphasises this further, by capturing the child’s voice. Using figurative language to increase the reaction of the ‘roar’ of the crowd creates a sense of drama and approval from the audience, which could perhaps relieve the tension created earlier on in the article. 

To dissect:

The figurative use of the verb, ‘erupted’ used to depict the crowd highlights their support and excitement at the completion of such a feat.

What is used (the verb) how, (analytical verb- ‘depicts’, followed by a ‘doubling up’ sentence- support AND excitement).

3. We use our doubling up statements to branch off into further analysis. How does it create a sense of drama? 

Once we feel confident enough to take the stabilisers off:

Using figurative language to increase the reaction of the ‘roar’ of the crowd creates a sense of drama and approval from the audience, which could perhaps relieve the tension created earlier on in the article. 

What is used (figurative language), how (analytical verb that shows development- ‘increase,’ followed by a ‘doubling up’ sentence- drama AND approval), which we then use one of the ‘doubling up’ statements to extend our ideas into HOW the drama is created and then dissipated.

Why is this useful? Because it enables students to have a formula that acts as a springboard and not a cage; they can use this to move with confidence and most importantly, urgency through a text, rather than pondering over which one of the many, many quotations makes the final cut. Done well, several can.

Exam board commentary? The opening lines of the article were worth exploring for content, language and tone but it was also important for candidates to move through the text and get coverage of the whole article; those who limited themselves to an exploration of just two or three lines of the text struggled to move into the higher mark bands. Well, we know that much, don’t we.

The other reason I use this more and more now, is that it lends itself to literature and language. It avoids a ‘this is a question 3, use this framework for 3, this framework for 4, stand on your head if you get to 5’ approach. Moving away from teaching students a structure question, we can harness their confidence to write with purpose. This approach works well for the literature extract question, or even the poetry 15 mark response, because it aligns to how we teach the poetry: explore the beginning, middle and end of the poem, and identify the ideas of <insert theme> along the way. Categorise, write. I think at some point, that will deserve a blog of of its own, but for now, I hope this is useful.

You can find the exam paper that I refer to here:

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