Over my last two posts I’ve argued that, contrary to popular opinion, English is not a ‘skills based’ subject. In fact, what appear to be skills are actually composed on many thousands of individual components of knowledge organised together as schema. In my last post I tried to demonstrate that practising ‘inference skills’ won’t actually help students get better at making inferences, and that this ability depends on what they know about a text and about the domain of English more generally. In this post I will attempt to reclaim the concept of practice in English lessons from the confusing quagmire in which it appears to be slowly submerging.

Practice makes permanent, not perfect; whatever we practise, we get better at. If we practice doing the wrong things then we’ll get better at doing those things well. Students spend lots of time filling up exercise books in English lessons. They write page after page of low quality answers to comprehension questions and endless crappy ‘analytic’ paragraphs. What do you suppose they are getting better at?

The main justification for this approach is that because students will be judged on their ability to write essays, they need to spend as much time as possible writing essays. But in many domains, practice looks very different to final performance. Just as the best way to prepare to run a marathon is by slowly and incrementally building up to ever longer distances until, eventually, in the final stages of practice, 26 miles becomes possible, the best way to get better at essay writing is to practise acquiring the components of knowledge needed to be skilled at writing essays.

But, as every English teacher is well aware, knowing lots of facts about, say, Romeo and Juliet, is not the same thing as being able to write an essay about the play. It therefore seems reasonable to practise writing essays. Most essay writing practice typically consists of teaching students some sort of structural device (PEE – Point Evidence Explain – or one of its many variants) and getting them to write paragraphs in which they give an opinion, provide textual evidence to support their opinion, and then either go into detail about precisely why the evidence supports their opinion, or disappear down some rabbit hole exploring the subtleties of the quotation. On the face of it this seems to work because some students seem to get better at writing such paragraphs, but for every student who seems to gain increasing confidence there always seems to be another who slavishly follows the structure without saying anything of any interest or originality. I’ve come to think of this as cargo cult writing.

The problem, as Daisy Christodoulou identifies in Making Good Progress, is that writing an essay – or a paragraph – is a summative task, and that giving formative feedback on that task is only useful if the student then repeats the same task. This worked well when students could endlessly redraft coursework but is far less effective in a linear exam – especially if that exam contains a number of unseen texts. Her suggestion, therefore is that we give formative feedback on genuinely formative tasks.

One extremely useful form of formative task is retrieval practice of information about texts being studied. It’s easy for both teachers and students to believe that just because information has been encountered previously it has been learned. If we tell students something we’ve previously told them they’ll nod with familiarity. We often think we know things which we are unable to recall independently. This is the illusion of knowledge.

If we wants to help students acquire a more robust schema about a text they have studied they could ask a multiple choice question, like this:

What does the word “portentous” imply about Mr Birling?

  1. He is overweight
  2. He is self-important.
  3. He is good at predicting what will happen in the future.
  4. He worries about the future.

All the students’ effort will go into trying to recall an answer they have previously learned rather than into writing a short paragraph. This kind of question has two important functions. First, it provides excellent feedback on what students have forgotten (allowing ’high confidence’ errors to be hypercorrected.) Second, it provides retrieval practice which improves students’ ability to bring information to mind when they need it. Thus, if they’re asked to write an essay about Mr Birling, or the opening scene of An Inspector Calls in an exam, they will have less troubling remembering that Birling is a pompous boor who likes to look like he knows things other people don’t.

When it comes to writing essays, this kind of knowledge is necessary but insufficient. Students also need to practice integrating this information in academic language. But instead of writing lengthy, summative paragraphs, time would be better to give students practice at writing excellent sentences.

Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler’s The Writing Revolution provides an excellent template marrying content and structure bat the level of the sentence. The idea is beguilingly simple and surprisingly effective: teach students different sentence structures and then get then to apply the content they’ve learned to those structures. For instance, one of their simplest ideas is the ‘because-but-so’ exercise where a statement is expanded by adding an additional clause beginning with either ‘because’, ‘but’ or ‘so’. Then, if students have been studying Macbeth they could practise by expanding on the statement, “Macbeth decided to murder King Duncan.”

  • Macbeth decided to murder King Duncan because he believed that was the only way the prediction that he would be “king hereafter” would come true.
  • Macbeth decided to murder King Duncan but was then changed his mind as the only reason was his “vaulting ambition”.
  • Macbeth decided to murder King Duncan so he asked his wife, Lady Macbeth, for help to come up with a plan.

This kind of practice doesn’t even have to be written. In fact, there’s good reason to think that students would benefit from doing much of this work orally, on the basis that speech appears to be particularly ‘cognitively sticky’ and that we’re better at remembering what we say than what we write.

As students get more knowledgeable about the texts they’re studying, they will become increasingly able to add information to analytic sentences. And, as they become increasingly knowledgeable about how sentences structure content, they will be become ever more confident in expressing what they know. By practising the smaller components of what too often is seen as a monolithic ‘skill’ students become genuinely more skilled. If you take care of the sentences, the paragraphs will – to a large extent – take care of themselves.

There’s little point practising paragraphs if the sentence hasn’t been mastered. Similarly, there’s small value in spending time writing essays if you don’t know how to develop thoughts within a paragraph. The only time I’d suggest that it’s worth investing lesson time in writing essays is towards the end of the course, and even then, the main worth is that students become conversant with exam rubrics, rather than because it helps them become better essay writers.