In my last two blog posts, I have concentrated solely on the reading section of the AQA English Language paper, with the vague promise of more on the writing section. Since the last blog post, I have been frantically marking mock exams and vacillating between joy and despair. Joy because there have been significant improvements on Q4 and despair at the handful that still have far to go before they can effectively demonstrate their skills in this paper.
This time last year, I requested a copy of every marked script from the exam board after the January sitting. This was done to check that a) the consistency of marking was accurate across the papers as I had heard from conversation with other HoDs that they had found it wasn’t and b) to provide detailed feedback to students and the team on what needed to be done better.
What we discovered as a department was that the marking on the writing section was stunningly harsh, meaning we had to rapidly adjust what we considered to be quality work from students. In essence, we found that unless the written work was nearly flawless and ticked the necessary boxes, it didn’t get above a Band 2. Pedestrian work that was technically accurate scored higher; students who didn’t necessarily show a great deal of flair or originality were rewarded. As a department, we objected to what had been awarded marks and what hadn’t, but knew that we had to adjust our teaching.
So this year, I have been trying to maximise the impact of feedback to students when it comes to their writing and to steer them in their content in a much more focused way.
Stimulus Material – The Blackfish Effect
The AQA English Language writing section is always broadly thematically linked to the reading section. As the content is required to be uncontroversial and accessible to teenagers, picking stimulus material is incredibly important. I made a list of the possibilities: environment and ecology, food and health, sports, travel, technology, family life – the list goes on. It is almost impossible to anticipate and cover every topic that may come up in an unseen exam, but I wanted to give my students exposure to the best range of themes that I could. And who would have thought that the best work we produced would come from a whale? More specifically, a violent, possibly psychopathic orca called Tilikum…
As a class, we watched ‘Blackfish’, quite honestly one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen and students sat, entranced, through it. It concerns the treatment of orcas at Seaworld. When we were done, we orally rehearsed argument about keeping these beautiful creatures in captivity – and built up to writing Q6 type arguments on the issue. I found articles related to Seaworld and orcas and planned reading responses – Q1 and Q4 covered in one go.
Since the ‘Blackfish’ revelation, we have also watched ‘MissRepresentation’ about representations of women in the media and I have scheduled in ‘Vegucated’, a documentary on veganism. How many of us have complained that Literature is brilliant because the students enjoy and are stimulated by the content, but that Language is dullsville? The point is that the right stimulus material has made a difference to what can otherwise be quite dry and led to better, more focused writing.
Live Marking and the iPad
I may be late to the party on this one, but the biggest movement in marks in the writing section happened after this sequence of lessons. I wanted to show that the examiners were exacting in their marking of the writing section – that technical accuracy was of utmost importance and that they did not have all the time or space in the world to demonstrate their skills. After a piece of writing had been completed, I took a snapshot with the iPad – just a couple of paragraphs of work – of four different pieces of writing, across the ability range. No names were placed on the work (but students could identify their own – and we’re told not to say anything if it was theirs) and then printed off. Students had to rank the work according to the mark scheme before I ‘live-marked’ their work as if I was an examiner, on the board. The key to the ‘live-marking’ was the commentary. In the spirit of making the implicit explicit, I narrated the examiner’s thought process as I marked work, attached marks from the mark schemes and commented on band/grade equivalency.
The net result was clear. Students recognised that in their paragraphs, even a snapshot could determine a level and they could demonstrate a range of skills in that short a space on the page. It increased the density of skills demonstrated in their work. Single sentence for effect, use of semi-colon, rhetorical question, exclamation mark, use of embedded clause. Most of all, I was able to use this phrase from then on: “If I took a snapshot of those two paragraphs, what would you be demonstrating?”
Memrise the Vocabulary
No, folks, not a typo in my subheading. I was introduced to memrise.com by a colleague and I think it is brilliant, even if it just shows students that their range of vocabulary is limited and needs expanding. The website, free to all with an email sign up, provides a range of courses (across subjects) in which the content is fed to students in small, memorisable chunks. The concept is simple: memories can be planted and need watering. I got the laptops out with Year 11 and got them signed up. After a few minutes of “wow, I can learn Elvish/Yoruba/Russian!”, students settled into the English vocabulary courses on offer. Because it has social networking functions – students can ‘follow’ each other’s progress – they were soon competing in collecting points and learning the definition and spelling of new words. It’s not something that makes a huge difference immediately, but if you want to stretch the ‘vocabulazy’, it can act as a good starting point.
There isn’t long to go now before that English exam is upon us. Before then, I imagine that you have controlled assessment moderation and administration to complete. Tiredness is kicking in – but we are nearly there! It has just occurred to me that I ought to have some sort of catchphrase to sign off these AQA posts, but at this point on a Monday night, I have neither the wit, will or wisdom to create one. Keeeeeeep AQA-ing?
Just as lame as I thought it would be…