Shakespeare and the perception of incomprehensibility

First FolioFor many students, Shakespeare feels beyond their capabilities and the language seems completely inaccessible. But Shakespeare’s language isn’t really the problem- the majority of words are pretty familiar. The problem is caused by the things that students have to cut through: cognitive overload and the perception of incomprehensibility. Once these are addressed, Shakespeare’s language becomes much more straightforward.

Reducing cognitive load

For me, the biggest problem with studying Shakespeare is the wealth of knowledge students need to make sense of everything. Not simply vocabulary but the poetry, unfamiliar concepts, classical allusions, strange pronunciation, jokes which we can’t understand, topical references etc. Many things need to be known in order for a student to fully understand a scene and we can’t just point them all out as we read. Students need to be able to focus on the text without having to juggle a million new concepts. If they have too much to take on, they don’t understand the text and all those old prejudices rear their head.

I would therefore always start by watching the play. In an ideal world this would be in the theatre but most likely it’ll mean a film version. In starting with the complete play, students have the overview of plot, characters, themes etc. This means that the language is more accessible because they can contextualise it. There’s an argument that this spoils the reading of the text. However, surely the knowledge that Romeo and Juliet are doomed is crucial to our understanding of everything that happens before. And let’s face it, Shakespeare tells us that anyway in the prologue!

We should also endeavour to pre-teach some concepts which will unlock key sections of the text. Suppose we were studying The Merchant of Venice. Bassanio describes Portia:

Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia:
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

Students who had previously been introduced to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece would be able to spot the connection. Reading this extract without that knowledge would completely change the meaning of ‘golden fleece’ and ‘Jasons’. Having to stop here and explain that story takes the students out of the language long enough for them to become disconnected. Shakespeare needs to economically introduce Portia’s status as ‘prize’, establish Belmont as a special, almost mythical place and lead in to the sub-plot of the casket quest. An allusion to the Greek myth does that job beautifully but we miss it all if we don’t fully understand that myth.

This ‘pre-teaching’ can be integrated into the curriculum. For example, in year 7, our students spend time studying Theseus and The Minotaur in one scheme and then read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which begins with Egeus taking his daughter to Theseus. Instantly, students understand the great authority Theseus wields because they can make the connection. These two examples just happen to be on Greek mythology but there are obviously other examples.

The curriculum needs to be carefully designed to offer these opportunities to prepare for Shakespeare. A poetry scheme of work could easily include Anne Hathaway by Carol Ann Duffy. A scheme on Blood Brothers could contain lessons on fate and tragedy. Rhetoric could be studied in Animal Farm before reading the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice. Vocabulary homework from the previous term could be designed around difficult words to be encountered in the play. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of new information is worthwhile.

The perception of incomprehensibility

Sometimes the biggest barrier is simply the perception that Shakespeare’s language is impossibly difficult so we have to address that. It is helpful to start with something which suggests the simplicity of Shakespeare’s language. Sonnet 130 is a great introduction, as it combines simple ideas and allows students that moment where they ‘get it’. From there, we can unpick other features of the poem without any fear of the language.

Another ‘way in’ to Shakespeare’s language is to choose a part of the play where the audience is being directly addressed, a soliloquy or chorus (more often a character serving the function of the chorus). While Shakespeare is an amazing wordsmith, we can’t forget that he is writing for the stage. Every line is there to convey something to the audience. Ben Crystal, in ‘Shakespeare on Toast’, writes: “People write in sentences, they speak in thoughts.” If students can unlock each thought then they can make sense of complex language and ideas. Take this from Act 5 Scene 5 of Macbeth, following Lady Macbeth’s death:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In this soliloquy we get a glimpse into Macbeth’s mind. Each of his thoughts (colour coded) is relatively simple. Looking at the soliloquy like this does cut through that perception of complexity that puts students off. Then each ‘thought’ can be explored, the language analysed and the structure becomes clearer e.g. the layering of metaphors jumps out.

Sometimes there is a temptation to change the words but we should expect all students to study Shakespeare’s language. If you change Shakespeare’s language then you distort the meaning, you lose the rhythm, you lose the rich imagery and characters lose their ‘voice’. For me, it is the one non-negotiable aspect of studying Shakespeare. If you change the language then why study Shakespeare at all?

Shakespeare’s language isn’t always easy to unlock but hopefully these things help to cut through any distractions. I definitely feel that I’m still learning when it comes to teaching Shakespeare but I know that my students’ attitudes towards Shakespeare are changing. There is a real sense of achievement to succeeding in something difficult which was previously thought of in very negative terms. I also feel that the enjoyment of understanding a complex text is much better than simplifying things to make it more ‘fun’.

Further reading:

ToastShakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal is useful and insightful. His Springboard Shakespeares  are short and packed full of ideas to support teaching.

Here is everything Chris Curtis has written on Shakespeare.

 

 

Writing endings

Students struggle with endings for a number of reasons. For many, it’s that they run out of time, and write things like ‘NOT FINISHED! SORRY SIR!’, others have no idea how to end something and a fair few have no plan whatsoever so an ending is a happy accident if it occurs. I find that some of the best writing from students can be ruined-or the impact lessened- if the ending is poor or nonexistent so in this post I’m looking at strategies to make endings much more satisfying. The ideas can be thought of in two ways: 1) strategies to allow for sophisticated, controlled endings and 2) quick wins for students struggling with endings. I’m focusing on fiction here, although it will hopefully be useful for other types of writing.

Start with the end…

Before starting to write, students should at least think about the end. Even better, they should write it. That way, everything builds towards that. Not every novel builds to a satisfying sentence or paragraph but for me the ones which do linger longer in the memory. In some cases, such as Stoner by John Williams, the ending can even elevate the whole text.

One simple way for students to think of story planning is in terms of conflict and resolution. If students have a clear idea of the resolution then they are essentially building their story towards this. This won’t always help them with specific ways to end writing but it will ensure that there is an end! I’d always recommend simplicity in narrative writing: one main story(conflict), a couple of characters, one setting and a small period of time in which everything occurs. This will help students to have focused endings too.

…end with the start

Look at how Charles Dickens does this in A Tale of Two Cities:

Opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Ending: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

It is satisfying the way that the language of the ending echoes the language of the opening. There is a link with the development of best into better. Also, the balance of the sentences is repeated and anaphora is used in both. And because the last line is describing his death in positive terms, it is the best and worse of times! To what extent these connections are always noticeable in a novel, I don’t know, but it would be very clear in a short story written by a student.

For students who are the master of their craft, this is a lovely way to structure writing. It can be designed right from the start. For students who are struggling, it’s a simple way to round off their work. If they struggle with an ending you can just say ‘link it to your opening’.

Another interesting way to end might be to use the title in the ending. This can even be reverse engineered by students struggling at the end who can use something from their ending as the title, offering that satisfying resolution and a sense of control.

Simply repeating the opening sentence would work or repeating a variation of the opening sentence e.g. asking a question in the opening that is answered in the ending.

Students can illustrate some sort of change from opening to ending. For example, if they started by describing the rain pelting against windows then they can end with the sun appearing from behind the clouds.

Techniques

I don’t think this only applies to endings, but deliberately using some complex rhetorical techniques gives a satisfying, structured ending which feels controlled. I have spent whole lessons on antithesis (the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases or sentences), anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses or sentences).

For example, after studying  epistrophe, one of my students wrote this, although they eventually reworked it as an opening:

I’d asked my mum, almost my whole childhood,”Where’s daddy gone?” and everytime, my mum would say the same things: “He’s gone away but he’s not coming back”; “He loves you but he’s not coming back.”; “He’s a bad man, and he’s not coming back.” But that was before it all started. That fateful day, when he came back.

I like the way that the epistrophe highlights the phrase ‘he’s not coming back’ before the twist at the end. This ending from another student ties together all sorts of ideas and feels deeply satisfying:

As the snow began to fall into the trenches, it became unbearable. As the rain began to plummet into the trenches, it became hate. As the sun began to shine into the trenches it became heaven.

End on a thought

The end of a piece of writing can be conceived as a final thought which can be described in a word and then expanded into a sentence. If you can get students to encapsulate the ideas of their writing in one sentence then that can become the ending sentence of their writing. Look at the end of Frankenstein:

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

The one sentence fully encapsulates the bleakness of that story. It is hugely satisfying for the reader too. It’s exactly the sort of sentence that students can read, play around with, construct their own. They could rewrite it, changing the tone:

He was soon whisked away by the waves and lost in shouts of joy.

It was soon hidden away by time and lost in memory and imagination.

Share and discuss examples

I use mentor mats which start with a complete mentor text and then include example openings and endings. Like anything, the more high quality examples students see, the better they will become. For instance, here is an interesting document with one list of the  ‘100 best last lines from novels‘. I’m not sure all of them work out of context, mind you, but they are useful for discussion. It doesn’t take much extra effort to draw attention to the endings of texts studied in class either. Of Mice and Men is great to discuss, ending as it does with, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” which is often met with ‘eh?’ in my classroom! I’d even recommend looking at the last stanzas and lines from poems to get a real sense of well-crafted endings where every word counts.

Impose length restrictions

Some students will write and write, often creating a whole novel if you let them. If you impose a limit then they have to plan things carefully and have time to craft consciously. Exam boards do this and in the WJEC English exam they have an hour to write two pieces so learning to be concise but effective is essential.

Hopefully, those ideas will help improve students’ endings – there’s nothing worse than

(SORRY NOT FINISHED!)

 

Mentor Mats

Since reading the work of Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson, I have routinely used mentor texts to teach writing. As Anderson states in Mechanically Inclined, “A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” (See my post on working with mentor texts here.)

To support the use of mentor texts, I am introducing ‘Mentor Mats’. Mentor Mats are A3, double sided alternatives to literacy mats and work as follows:

Side 1: A mentor text with 3 grammatical/structural/stylistic features highlighted.Mentor Mat 1

Side 2: Further examples of openings and endings. Mentor Mat 2

The mats offer a number of benefits:

They show examples of success. This is how we want students to write. I find it much easier to show this, than just to explain or offer checklists. Through exposure to high quality examples of writing, students will be better placed to produce examples of their own.

They show how to get started (and finished). Some students will mimic the structures of entire openings, stealing judiciously. Others will use the openings to just get a sense of the sort of thing you might write. In either case, I am confident this is going to have greater long-term impact than just telling them how to start. Hopefully, cries of ‘I don’t know how to start’ are a thing of the past!

They isolate important features. Seeing examples of language features in context helps students to see how they work and encourage them to use them.

They limit the amount of information. Literacy mats can sometimes bombard students with so much information that it is hard to know what to concentrate on. These mats focus on three main techniques, giving examples to illustrate.

They needn’t take a ridiculous amount of time to produce. My colleague spent some time creating the design but we have ensured that it is very simple to create a new mat from the template.

This is the pdf version of the first mentor mat: Travel Writing.

The text for the mats is taken from The Daily Telegraph Travel Writing Competition which you can find here:

(I was going to post the pdf of the mentor mat here but- and this pains me to write- I’ve just noticed a typo. A ‘particple’ isn’t a thing. It’ll be uploaded asap.)

As ever, feedback is welcome.

Revision before redrafting

One of the major changes I have made to my practice is the focus on redrafting. I have been clear to insist to students that they must redraft their work. Often, this is following feedback from me or from their peers. I use strategies such as Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Revision.

STARImageI’ve been using it at the end of the first draft but I’m becoming increasingly aware that the best place for revision of writing is during the writing process and there are a couple of reasons why.

First of all, those students who think deeply about their work make some significant revisions but it has to be said that many don’t. They change the odd word here and there but their final drafts are very rarely significantly different from their first.

Also, our younger students are going to be writing in examinations where they do not have the time or opportunity to redraft. They need to be able to revise as they go.

Now, I do acknowledge that I need to be better at teaching the skills needed for redrafting but these are actually the same skills needed for students as they write their first drafts. To get students to the point where this is natural takes a lot of work:

Modelling

Modelling is massively important. This includes looking deeply at mentor texts, sharing high quality examples, but it is crucial that we also share the process. We model the mistakes, the rewording, the adding. Students need to see this process constantly and feel that it is an entirely natural process. I would always share high quality writing but good writers are experts in hiding their mistakes. The video below is made using screencast-o-matic.com and it shows me revising a paragraph on Animal Farm.

I like making these videos because they are under my control. I can prepare exactly what I want to show. I do also model from scratch in the classroom which does show a messier process. It should feel as natural as possible.

Micro-Revision

Students can’t only practise revision during these sessions of extended writing. They need to practise relentlessly and they can do this by focussing on small texts. I have said before that sentences are just small texts and they are a quick and easy way of modelling writing and the revision of writing. I really like Andy Tharby’s sentence escalator as it is such a great way of highlighting the revisions that we can make. By working on such a small level- the sentence level- we can be highly focussed and students don’t need to feel overwhelmed. Then they just build their writing sentence by sentence, revising as they go.

Also, it is perhaps a better use of time to ask students to redraft a small part of their text but do so multiple times than a redraft of a 3 page essay.

Words

Students need to be taught that the best word is the right word, not the longest. Some of the worst writing is created next to a thesaurus. Let me rephrase that:a quantity of the most evil inscription is fashioned subsequently to a lexicon. This leads to comments like ‘The Birlings live in a cumbersome house in Brumley’. Frankly, ‘large’ would have been just fine.

To help, I would teach vocabulary which will help them explore nuances e.g. when writing about characters in a book. This might mean taking a list of synonyms for ‘kind’ and asking ‘Is Lennie caring or compassionate?’, ‘Is George gentle or humane?’

I’m starting to become wary of thesauruses anyway because they teach a kind of learned helplessness. They also add way too much time when the words will probably not be used properly anyway. I can see them as a way to avoid being overly repetitive and students should be exposed to new vocabulary but they don’t pick up the nuances of words from the thesaurus.

When you look at revising words, it isn’t just making them more complex- although there is a place for this- it’s about making the words do more. If you look at verbs as the most ‘powerful’ parts of a sentence, you can use those as a lever for transforming writing.

Give students sentences with words changed. Ask them about the differences. You could start with clear differences:

Joey walked towards the school gates./ Joey trudged towards the school gates.

or make it harder to distinguish:

Joey ambled towards the school gates./ Joey trudged towards the school gates.

When they have practised this way of thinking, they can play around with verbs- and other words- in their own writing. This idea of giving options is explored beautifully in Chris Curtis’ Techniques for Dummies.

Real world examples

original_lyrics_in_my_lifeIt is great to be able to find real drafts of writing. For example, I like placing a copy of different drafts of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and focussing on which might be the final draft and why. I wouldn’t normally teach song lyrics but I think Beatles lyrics might be ok. You can look at the original song lyrics and how they changed e.g. the original lyrics for ‘In My Life’ pictured. The purpose of all this is to show that writers change their mind and it isn’t always to ‘add more detail’ or swap words!

Tone/ focus

One of the skills to focused writing is knowing exactly what you want to say and the way you wish to say it. If there is a clear tone, then each part can be sculpted to fit that. If there isn’t a tone, then writing can be flabby and unfocused. Similarly, essays with a clear thrust can be revised so everything feeds into the thesis. The best way to teach this idea of tone is to read examples of writing with clear tonality. When reading anything, build habits of looking for tone and writer’s ‘voice’. You can compare extracts like the two below and examine the differences in tone and purpose:

Rather a stately house of its kind, but dolefully in want of painting, and with dirty windows. He took out his key and opened the door, and we all went into a stone hall, bare, gloomy, and little used. So up a dark brown staircase into a series of three dark brown rooms…The furniture was all very solid and good, like his watch-chain. It had an official look, however, and there was nothing merely ornamental to be seen. Great Expectations

They could compare this with:

The property has over the past four years been the subject of a meticulous project to create an exemplary private residence to an exacting specification complemented by luxurious fixtures and fittings throughout. At the heart of the property is the stunning bespoke family dining kitchen designed by Park Royal Interiors Ltd who were also responsible for overseeing the design of the bathroom suites. The property also boasts under floor zoned central heating together with an integrated Sonos audio system, Rako lighting and Cat 5 installation. The external appearance is complemented by Accoya folding door sets with eclipse advantage double glazing. Rightmove.co.uk

Rereading

It may seem ridiculously obvious, but many students do not read their work back to themselves. They may do a quick check but they don’t reread with purpose- or at least they won’t if we don’t teach them to. When they reread, they should be looking for clarity, for style, for syntax and rereading for errors. When I’m sending an email, I will often read the email out loud to check the tone- it can be awkward if an unintended tone comes through in your writing. I also have to proofread a million times- I only just spotted a ‘form’ instead of a ‘from’ in this blog.

The plan

It can be tempting to draw up a rudimentary plan, but the idea of a plan is to ensure that the whole piece has that sense of focus mentioned above. It is in the plan that much of the structural work on a text has to be done. With a solid plan in place, it could be argued that your first draft is a kind of second draft. I would love to suggest a particularly innovative planning format but I would just use a mind map or a variation on it.

Other aspects to consider:

Cohesion– how does the overall text hold together?

Detail– we can model the ‘add more detail’ part by elaborating on ideas, clarifying ideas, looking into alternative viewpoints.

Introductions– provide many models of introductions and encourage students to revise their introduction after the piece is completed.

Everything that I have written could be in a post on redrafting so by teaching the skills of revision, we have also taught the skills for redrafting. Now, if students go on to redraft the work, they are in a strong position already and better prepared for the next draft.

Working with Mentor Texts

“A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” Jeff Anderson.

In my post on Routines for Excellent Writing, I discussed the usefulness of mentor texts. You can read more about the what and why of mentor texts there. As a follow up to that, and in response to my #tmeng presentation, I am looking in detail at a specific mentor text in this post.

I have chosen this review of Rock of Ages. (original review online here) I chose it for the things I could pick out and look at with students. I’m looking at the unabridged text but I’d recommend cutting bits out, replacing, isolating paragraphs or whatever you need. Using a real text has its benefits but I would also suggest creating one from scratch if you wanted to demonstrate a specific idea rather than searching and searching.

Vocabulary

I’m a bit obsessed with vocabulary. If I wanted a vocabulary focus I might look at the following in the text:

  • Naïve/ lugubrious/ narcissistic – complex words which will probably need explanation.
  • Satirizing/ screenplay/ production values – media terminology
  • Intensity/ frantically/ meander – words which I want to transfer into students’ working vocabulary. A word like ‘meander’ is so nuanced and precise that I’d love to see it in my students’ work.

Sometimes you need not spend too much time on vocabulary. Those last three words will probably inch closer to being used by students just because of the further exposure to them. On the other hand, texts could be chosen or created precisely to build vocabulary. For example, if you knew students were writing about fate, say, in Of Mice and Men, you could read this article: Is a US attack on Syria now inevitable? and the word ‘inevitable’ would (inevitably) find itself in students’ vocabulary. Furthermore, the paragraph below from the same text would help ‘caution’ and ‘reluctance’ shift ever closer to usage too, words which would come in handy writing about the text.

I have been stressing President Obama’s caution and reluctance to take action. But now it does seems difficult for him to back down without losing face. Unless something changes.

Punctuation

I find it much easier to study punctuation in context. For example, our mentor text has a number of brackets used in different ways:

  • Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise)
  • …a couple of grim bodyguards (Kevin Nash, of all people, and Jeff Chase, a giant 6’7″ bodybuilder).
  • (spoiler!)

The last example is certainly worth drawing attention to. I’d discuss it with students, ask them if it is ‘correct’, ask them if that matters, ask them to write their own. I feel that this approach is much more successful than trying to explain how to use brackets and should complement any explicit teaching of punctuation.

Openings

I’m often greeted with variations of ‘I know what I want to write but I just can’t get started.’ Good mentor texts can show many different ways to get started. When I ask students to write a letter, they can all get started. (I am writing to…) This is obviously not the greatest opening but they have been exposed to letters and letter writing in class so many times over the years that it is encoded. The opening to this review is not ground-breaking…

“Rock of Ages,” a rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll musical set mostly in a music club on Sunset Strip, wins no prizes for originality.

…but is still a useful opening to steal: “Gravity,” a stunning adventure story set in open space, wins first prize for visual effects.‘ From there, students can build. We can introduce other review openings and ask students to compare which ones are more effective and why:

  • Combine (1) a mysterious threat that attacks a town, and (2) a group of townspeople who take refuge together, and you have a formula apparently able to generate any number of horror movies, from “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) to “30 Days of Night.”
  • Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery.
  • After opening with one of the most terrifying flying scenes I’ve witnessed, in which an airplane is saved by being flown upside down, Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” segues into a brave and tortured performance by Denzel Washington — one of his very best.

Sentences

A sentence is a mentor text. We can use them on their own to highlight aspects of the writer’s craft or we can identify sentences of note in larger texts. In our mentor text, I noticed the following:

  • If you’re tracking those names, you’re perhaps impressed.
  • If you are of a certain age, you may remember them.
  • If you’re making the kind of movie where everybody in the audience knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s best not to linger on the recycled bits.

Students can be asked to create their own. They can keep bits of the sentences or lose it all. They might play with the order. We could look at who ‘you’ is and the effect of that. Is ‘you’ the same in all sentences?

I’d also play around with a sentence like, ‘In a movie where all the stars except the leads are essentially satirizing themselves, Tom Cruise is the most merciless on himself.’

  • In a movie where all the__________________, x is the most__________________.
  • In a scene where none of the__________________, x is the least__________________.
  • In a world where__________________, x__________________.

Paragraphs

Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the “Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?

This paragraph is perfect for a review and perfect to steal. It could fit into any review which touches upon typical genre conventions. It could be used in isolation as an introduction to anaphora. It could be used in a Media Studies lesson to explore genre. The idea of constructing a paragraph can be difficult to grasp and examples like this are priceless in helping to show what is possible.

For more on mentor texts, I’d recommend reading anything by Kelly Gallagher.

Routines for Excellent Writing

This is a posting of my presentation at the NATE North writing conference.

I think the routines and habits we establish in and out of the classroom are massively important. Whether these are routines to help the start of lessons go smoothly or to mark exercise books, there are things we should be doing again and again, refining, improving and embedding. Writing is no different. For students to be able to produce excellent writing there are several teacher and student habits I feel are important.

Part 1 Mentor texts and modelling

We want students to produce excellent writing but there are a few issues that we need to acknowledge. First of all, many students do not read regularly and do not encounter different writing styles. When I think about what made me a good writer at school, I am convinced that it was the fact that I read a great deal. But even if students have a reading habit, they are still less likely to read non-fiction and so when we ask them to write it is unsurprising that they will struggle if they have no idea of what a successful piece might look like. This is why we should surround students with mentor texts.

“A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” Jeff Anderson, in Mechanically Inclined.

Whenever you are asking students to write, you show them examples of texts to use as models- mentor texts. I like calling them ‘mentor texts’ because of the associations of the word ‘mentor’-these are the texts we learn from. We should collect these whenever we come across them. They can be whole texts, sections of texts and can even be created by you for the sole purpose of being a mentor text- although I would only do this if I couldn’t find a better one in the real world.

Read>Analyse>Emulate

The first step is to read the mentor text. It is worth creating opportunities for students to interact and analyse aspects of the text. Then I would draw attention to anything worth pointing out: paragraph structures, sentences, vocabulary, punctuation and anything interesting at all. Draw out the interesting aspects that make this worth studying. Then students should be encouraged to imitate the text.

Mentor texts can be in all shapes and sizes. An example I used recently was this review of Rock of Ages. There is a cracking paragraph in there which could fit in any review which touches upon genre conventions:

Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the “Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?

There are a number of sentences with similar constructions throughout the text. I would draw attention to these as we read:

  • If you’re tracking those names, you’re perhaps impressed.
  • If you are of a certain age, you may remember them.
  • If you’re making the kind of movie where everybody in the audience knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s best not to linger on the recycled bits.

Both of the above examples would lend themselves well to activities where students imitate the language and style. For good measure, here are a few more openings of film reviews I think would work well as mentor paragraphs.

Sentences

If you are looking for mentor texts, then they don’t come any smaller than sentences. In Everyday Editing, Anderson explains how he chooses sentences that:

  • Connect to students’ worlds-their interests, humour, or problems;
  • Show a clear pattern that is easy to observe, imitate, or break down;
  • Model writer’s craft and effective writing-powerful verbs, sensory detail, or voice.

I now spend much of my time in lessons looking at sentences, mainly inspired by the blogging of Chris Curtis (see recommended reading). We need to form a ‘sentence stalking’ habit as teachers and then pass that on to students.

TWP_20131018_003his paragraph from a mentor text I used with a class has several sentences of note and I chose to ‘zoom in’ on the opening one:

 

Like many homeless young people that come to Centrepoint, Mark is used to being ignored.

We can encourage students to play around with a sentence like this.

  • How is it different from Mark is used to being ignored like many homeless young people that come to Centrepoint?
  • How does it change if it becomes Mark is homeless. Mark is used to being ignored.
  • You could get students to substitute words. You could ask them to create sentences with a similar pattern e.g. Like many_____________, Mark____________________.
  • You could experiment with different words to start e.g. ‘unlike’ / Just like/ As with.

You can see examples of this in action below when students were asked to use the mentor text as a guide for a similar piece on an animal rescue charity:

Milo

HumansThe second example is notable because, although the student has used the mentor sentence to create their own, the ‘dear helpless humans’ opening does not fit and is an example of trying to cram in a language technique at the expense of the tone of the piece.

gonzabThe next example is also notable because the original  mentor text had a punctuation error (which I didn’t spot) and the student has imitated it. This makes me realise that students will learn from the texts we show them. If we show students who have a target grade of C a C grade piece of work as an exemplar, we are guilty of lowering expectations as they will imitate that and not a better piece of work.

Teacher as writer

The teacher should model the process of writing. It isn’t just a case of showing a final product to students. They need to know that there is a hidden part that the best writers never show but always go through. Students need to see that it is never a perfect process. Sentences change, bits are removed, and sometimes when it is completed we’re not that happy. My visualiser is an essential tool to help me to do this. A useful website is screencast-o-matic.com as you can record videos of your modelling. This allows you circulate the class and you can save them and refer students back to them.As we start writing, I also like to ask students to write on my whiteboard either side of the Smartboard. It makes their thinking visible, other students can take ideas and we have something to critique afterwards.

Part 2: revision and redrafting

The first part of the post was all about ways to ensure that students produce a strong first draft of writing. The next set of habits that we want students to encode are to do with the crucial stage of revision of work. After the first draft, something needs to happen to ensure that a further draft has some improvement. All too often, drafts can be simply neater versions of the first drafts with the odd word replaced with another using a thesaurus.

Acting on feedback

Target2Students should act on feedback as part of the process of writing and not just after it is finished. I use mail merge to create ‘feedbactivities’ which are handed to students as starters. Examples are collected here. The more immediate this feedback loop is, the more likely that students will improve as a result. I like improvements to impact on the current piece of work as well as the next.

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Another useful feedback method is the Taxonomy of Errors. Simply put- this is a collection of class errors on a piece of work- read this blog for a more detailed explanation. In my own version, I collect the errors/targets along with some guidance on how to improve. The pictured example is based on the Centrepoint mentor text. In the example I have informed students of their more specific target (T4) but you could ask them to identify their target from the list or use it for peer assessment. Here is the list of targets.

Revision

In Write Like This, Kelly Gallagher makes a compelling case for revision:

It is modelling revision- taking a rough draft and moving it to a better place- that is critical if our students are to sharpen their writing skills. Many of my students come to me with a ‘I wrote it once; I am done’mentality, and it takes many modelling sessions before they start to move past this attitude. Anyone can write, I tell them, but rewriting is where good papers emerge. Revision is where it is at- the make-or-break point for the paper, the place where bad writing has the opportunity to be transformed into good writing.

His ‘STAR Revision’ is a good starting point. Remember that you can’t just give students this sheet and they’ll magically revise everything. It all needs to be modelled, discussed and reviewed. Versions of this could be produced for specific tasks and text types. (Thanks to @KerryPulleyn for this idea)

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There are certainly more routines worth exploring to help to improve writing and I’m always grateful for more ideas. The above are proving effective for me but as always are works in progress.

Further reading

Most of my ideas come from other teachers. Here are some ideas for further reading:

Chris Curtis (@xris32) is a prolific blogger. His blogs on sentences have had a huge impact on my practice and they are collected here.

Jeff Anderson(@writeguyjeff) has written a number of books on writing. 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is a treasure trove of ideas and highly recommended.

Alex Quigley (@huntingenglish) has this brilliant blog on shared writing.

I’d recommend reading anything by Kelly Gallagher (kellygtogo).

Finally, I did speak about vocabulary in the original presentation as I feel that vocabulary routines are extremely important. Here are my posts on vocabulary: