What is ‘structure’ Miss? Using abstract concepts and images to teach structure.

If I had a pound for every time I heard an English Teacher tell a top-set student that if they ‘comment on structure’ in their exam, they will get an A*, I would have already set up home in a converted barn in the countryside, retired from teaching and be running my own vintage furniture shop, or quirky deli. However mythical this statement may be, structure remains one of the most badly taught and widely misunderstood components of teaching English. Why is this? 1) We tend to ignore our more complex skills at Key Stage Three- not treating ‘structure’ as what David Didau has coined a ‘threshold concept’ interweaved in our curriculum and 2) We need clarification on what is actually meant by ‘structure’.

Whilst structure has previously been optional analysis for our GCSE students, AQA’s new 2017 English Language specification now has its own specific ‘structure’ question. Advice to students of ‘comment on any structural features that interest you’ is as unhelpful as a litter of sausage dogs on a working farm

When planning to teach this question to my top-set Year 10 class, I was even unsure about it.  I questioned: is structure always entirely isolated from language and should it really be separated  from the language question? Assessing pitfalls in this question with a mock paper before we began teaching, I noticed that students were making relevant structural comments about language in question 2 but they had little left to write about in terms of structure in question 3.  As ever, the exam boards have delivered a specification that rewards students for being good at doing exam papers rather than excelling in particular skills.

As an AFL tool to measure understanding of structure, I called on abstract images and concepts. I asked my students to connect their current understanding of structure to an abstract object or concept. My favourite pre-teaching drawing was a basic (square, symmetrical, new-build looking first home)- the bricks representing the chronological order in which the house was put together. My students tended to look at texts chronologically and methodically and would make forced comments about structural features within texts…’At the start the poet does this… In the next stanza the poet does this…’.  This of course outlined how much work there was left to do- and at this moment, I decided to factor and interweave structure into our KS3 long-term plans.

In our lessons, we examined structure from three different angles (whole text, paragraph and sentence level) and these were initially taught explicitly. These angles will be tools for students to unpick a text  in an exam but not a framework or scaffold for ‘how to get an A*’. If there isn’t any interesting whole texts features- they should not try to make (often ineffective) comments on them.  Here’s how we did it:

Whole text level

  • looking at alternative introductions;
  • looking at alternative endings;
  • identifying perspective shifts between beginning and end;
  • comparing tone in the opening and ending of texts;
  • using paper chains to identify similarities and differences between large sections of texts.

Paragraph level

  • Identifying topic shifts;
  • Aspects of (features and techniques used to create) cohesion.

Sentence level

  • Examining how sentence structure is used in relation to the text as a whole.

When students came to draw their abstract concepts or images at the end of the mini-scheme, the girl who had drawn the square, new-build house had moved up the metaphorical property ladder and invested in a much more complex design. The new house wasn’t symmetrical – she tells me that it represents how texts are not as straight-forward as they appear on first inspection. There will be similarities and differences between the layout and materials used in different parts of the house- or the way (and machinery) used in putting them together. I asked her why she had chosen to draw a converted barn and her reply was: ‘sometimes writers use traditional forms in their writing but they rarely keep them exactly the same’. Lightbulb moment.

Asking my students to put down their copies of The Lord of the Flies and instead get their colouring pencils out allowed them to develop a much more useful understanding of structure and really understand how to approach it effectively in the exam.

 

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