A quick word – retrieval practice for single word quotations

For some time now, I’ve begun virtually every lesson with a memory platform. Usually, this takes the form of a simple quiz, sometimes using a multiple choice format. Crucially, I interleave topics that we haven’t studied for a while with things that we’ve recently covered. Pupils regularly tell me that this approach has a) improved their retention of knowledge b) made them feel more confident ahead of assessments and c) become a nice, familiar routine at the start of each session.

But sometimes, in the hectic life of the average teacher, things go wrong. I haven’t had the chance to construct a quiz on a particular topic. My soporific PC won’t load up in time. I’ve had to deal with an incident at break time and my class are sat waiting for me to begin. Then I have to wing it. I have to make up a quick knowledge quiz on the spot. So I’ll do things like have a brief scan of the extract we’re about to analyse, work out the likely key quotations, and write things like:

Write down a synonym for the following words

  1. expensive
  2. guarded
  3. empty
  4. depressing
  5. waste

or

Identify the word class of the following

  1. hopelessness
  2. under
  3. somebody
  4. could
  5. extremely

or

Which characters could the following adjectives be applied to?

  1. callous
  2. impetuous
  3. nurturing
  4. possessive
  5. arrogant

The other day, under pressure to come up with a worthwhile memory platform in a matter of seconds, I remembered a brilliant blog that Chris Curtis had written a while back about single word quotations, which had inspired me to write something about Shakespeare’s use of single word motifs as a trope throughout his works.  So, under pressure with 29 expectant eyes on the board, I scrawled the following on the board:

Identify the text/character from the following single word quotation:

  1. sweet
  2. signature
  3. sunlight
  4. somebody
  5. squat
  6. shipwreck
  7. suddenly
  8. sabre
  9. sneer
  10. sheath

And it worked well. In most cases, with most words, pupils were able to use the single word as a springboard for identifying the ‘wider’ quotation. Even if they couldn’t recall the ‘full’ sentence or line, they took comfort from the fact that they could analyse the single word anyway. Follow up questions bounced around the room: who said it? to whom? which scene? what’s the line before? ‘Sweet’ worked really well because of its frequency in Romeo and Juliet, prompting multiple answers, and allowing me to bang on about single word motifs once more. ‘Sunlight’ performs a similar function in ‘The Emigree’.

So the following day I did it again. But this time I planned ahead, this time planting some deliberately ambiguous single word quotations in there – words that could come from two or more of the texts (Jekyll & Hyde, R&J, DNA and the AQA Power & Conflict poems) that we study:

  1. blind
  2. grave
  3. dark
  4. black
  5. ache
  6. fear
  7. doomed
  8. somebody
  9. head
  10. plague

This worked ridiculously well. Next day, I started getting a bit more creative, linking the words thematically:

  1. dove
  2. crow
  3. nightingale
  4. swan
  5. lark
  6. drugs
  7. intoxicated
  8. beers
  9. stumbling
  10. gin

And the day after:

  1. fetch
  2. throw
  3. catching
  4. fall
  5. stumble

And so on.

The beauty of this is it’s quick, effective and requires not much planning. But it also has the following (originally unintended) benefits for pupils:

  • it enables them to make links between texts
  • it highlights motifs within the texts
  • it highlights key themes (such as perception/inability to see clearly) within the texts
  • it makes them realise that one word could help them remember three different quotations in the exam
  • it makes them appreciate that they might well remember the word but they can’t remember the context of the text (who said it and when for example).

Give it a go. It might just rescue your lesson the next time your memory stick malfunctions or you leave your photocopying in the staff room.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

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Why bother with complex terminology?

It began as a mistake. The other day, I went to an AQA GCSE English language feedback meeting. I shouldn’t have gone. Like a bruised rib that you can’t resist poking, or a declining TV series that you give just one more chance, I rarely find anything other than discomfort from these things. But, I felt I had to go. I wanted some answers. It’s a tough job, speaking on behalf of a huge organisation, fielding difficult questions from annoyingly opinionated people like me. I wanted reassurances that steps were being taken to avoid this year’s marking fiasco , which saw a frantic rush to mark papers before the deadline, and trainees and postgrads given contracts to mark. I also wanted to understand what in the hell examiners were looking for on Paper 2 Q2.

The AQA facilitator was really nice: an amiable woman who was clearly trying to reassure those of us (most of us, I felt) who were worried about key aspects of the spec and the first round of examinations. But one thing she said very much riled me. We were discussing technical terminology. We spent a lot of time discussing complex technical terminology. Technical terminology got a bad press. Technical terminology was asked to leave the room, tail firmly tucked between its legs. Her case against complex technical terminology went something like this:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

I’m paraphrasing, and taking a few stylistic liberties of course, but the central argument remains accurate. There was relief in the room. The backlash had begun. We could finally consign these esoteric and arrogant words to the (A level) dustbin.

I demurred vigorously. Here’s why I believe the argument against complex technical terminology is wrong:

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1.The pupils end up feature spotting and forget to focus on the effect

This is an odd argument for sacrificing sophisticated words. Let me be clear: feature spotting is a bad thing. Feature spotting should not be awarded good marks, regardless of how clever-sounding the features are. Feature spotting is, however, a sign of poor teaching – or perhaps poor listening on the part of the pupil – rather than the sign of an inherently unnecessary term.

What do I think is the most important part of analysis? Effect, effect, effect. If, in their desire to bedazzle examiners with sophisticated terminology, some (or rather, from speaking to examiners I have met, many) teachers haven’t made that clear to pupils then there lies the fault.

Good pupils can and will do both, if given sufficient models, practice and quality feedback. I’ve given examples of effective use of terminology and effect here and here.

2.  These words unnecessarily complicate things

Why bother with obscure Greek terms like ‘anthropomorphism’? It’s such a mouthful and difficult to spell. Well, firstly, the most significant myths of Western civilisation (and Eastern I’m guessing) are based around anthropomorphic ideas. The Garden of Eden and the Satanic serpent. Most of the Greek myths. Much of our great literature – such as Animal Farm – and classic children’s literature – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, for examplerelies on giving animals human characteristics. But it’s a clever sounding word, so let’s ditch it right?

The gazillion different types of repetition like anadiplosis, commoratio and epimone are also daft aren’t they? If used without exploration of effect, or course they are. But wielded judiciously they can really help pupils achieve a whole new level of understanding of the writer’s craft. Anadiplosis offers an excellent insight into the way that the interaction between language and theme develops, often in a cause and effect structure, as in the classic example from the Star Wars:

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Yoda’s s powerful wisdom is certainly amplified through the use of anadiplosis. The original emotion mushrooms to more destructive feelings. Anadiplosis is domino rally repetition and deserves our attention not mockery.

3.They are best saved for A level

If a teacher feels that pupils are ready to deal with more complicated-sounding ideas and terms, why should we wait? I walked in on a colleague teaching (or rather re-teaching) the concept of liminality to a group of Year 9s the other day during an Of Mice and Men lesson. Their mature appreciation of the notion astounded me. But no, let’s wait until we’ve just got our nice small A level class (full of well-behaved hardworking girls no doubt) to go over these things in a nice, cosy environment.  Why shouldn’t Key Stage 3 pupils be able to grasp litotes? Suggesting otherwise is low expectations in my opinion. I’ve taught anagnorosis, dysphemism and portmanteau neologisms to ‘bottom set’ kids before and they’ve risen to the challenge. This may be an unpopular opinion, but part of the problem lies in some teacher’s preconceived notions of what some kids can achieve.

4. We need a hierarchy of terms

Why don’t the exam board tell us what to teach, point us in the right direction, give us a list? Let’s teach to the mark schemes while we’re at it and direct our curriculum rigidly to what will appear in the exam while we’re at it. This sounds arrogant (okay it is arrogant but it’s also true), but I don’t need an exam board to tell me what’s appropriate for my pupils. I’m an expert in my subject. I’m trying to educate comprehensive, state schools pupils to appreciate unrestrained intellectualism in a way that will not disadvantage them when they come to compete with more privileged public school counterparts. Two of my Year 13 pupils recently sat the Cambridge English entrance exam. I’d hate to think that they came unstuck by reference to an ‘esoteric’ term that kids from Eton had learnt in Year 9.

Also, why should one Greek word – ‘metaphor’ – be more seen as more accessible and appropriate for younger pupils than another – such as ‘microcosm’? Yes, there’s the question of frequency of occurrence, but I’ve seen metaphor explained so badly at times by some teachers that it was almost not worth bothering. The concept of microcosm – when applied to Lord of the Flies for example – is arguably easier to get your head around – certainly to define – than trusty old metaphor.

And when it comes to feature spotting, some common language features are just as likely as obscure newbies to lead to empty comments. This happens a lot with our old friends alliteration and rhetorical question. How many times have you seen pupils identify alliteration and fail to clearly explain its purpose, or have read that the rhetorical question ‘makes the reader think’?

5. They’re only being used to try and impress examiners during analysis questions

Not only do these terms help appreciate the writer’s craft, they also help improve pupils’ writing skills.

Look again at the paragraphs where I paraphrase the AQA representative’s case against complex terms:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact. (commoratio)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. 

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. (commoratio)Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks. (anadiplosis)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. (commoratio)We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. (epimone)

I can use these rhetorical features in my writing precisely because I learnt them when analysing texts. For instance, I used epizeuxis when I wrote about ‘effect, effect, effect’. And I’ve used other ‘lesser’ types of repetition as well. Simple, easy-to-spell and easy-to-identify Greek words like err… ‘anaphora’.

So have my pupils. They can take Yoda’s famous anadiplosis and do things like this:

Fear of the headteacher leads to homework being set. Homework being set leads to miserable pupils. Miserable pupils forget to hand in homework. Forgetting to hand in homework leads to suffering in a lunchtime detention.

So, you’ll hopefully forgive me for getting annoyed by the AQA facilitator’s well-intentioned but, I think, potentially damaging remarks. Let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading,

Mark