Whenever teachers discuss differentiation, so often the conversation focuses on enabling the least able to access the curriculum. After all, so rarely do the most able students cause us a problem; we can give them any old task and they’ll happily complete it, no questions asked. However, ensuring that we are stretching the most able is vital if we are to ensure that these students do not switch off from their learning and are learning to the best of their ability.
It is often suggested in CPD sessions that we use the most able to teach others. Especially, when they’ve finished early, it’s suggested that we tell them to ‘go and help someone else’. Unless these are unbelievably conscientious and driven teenagers, they – more often than not – go and have a chat with a friend. I, therefore, decided that I wanted to investigate a more structured approach to using the most able to teach others.
During the study of Jekyll and Hyde, my Head of Department sent out an excellent lesson which asked students to evaluate how successful Stevenson is in creating sympathy for Jekyll in the novel. With this idea, I organised my year 10 top set into groups. Each group was allocated a section of text. In their groups, they were asked to determine whether this section of text generated sympathy for Jekyll, to find quotations from the text to support this idea and to determine what it was that Stevenson had done to create sympathy.
From here, a student teacher (I had allocated this role to a member of each group) would visit the other groups, teaching the others what they had determined in their own group. Each student teacher would move around the room after five to ten minutes of talking to a group.
I determined the ‘student teachers’ by establishing either a) who the most able member of the group was b) who was the most confident in talking to others or c) who would benefit from teaching other students about their ideas. Of course, teaching others is a skill which is important to all students as the verbalisation of their ideas helps them to hone and concrete these ideas even further. The movement around the room and the short time frames given for the changes between the groups also helped to maintain focus.
At the end of the lesson, I asked students to complete a ‘learning log’: a plenary which asked them to discuss with their partner the type of skills they’d used and why they felt that it had been beneficial to use them during their learning. I believe that by encouraging students to think about how they’ve learnt and not just whether they’ve hit an assessment objective for an exam, we create more resilient and independent learners. At the end of the lesson, I asked students for feedback to include in this blog.
Their responses were as follows:
• What skills have you been asked to use this lesson?
Listening skills, written communication skills, note taking, teaching
• How did it make you feel?
It forced me to justify myself
• Why do you think they were useful skills?
Display own knowledge
Forced to concentrate.
• Did they help you to learn in a different way?
Talking gave you more confidence
• Did you prefer learning from your peers as opposed to the teacher?
Would have liked to go at front
Teacher knows more – can we trust what they say?
Easier to learn with friends when we feel we can’t put our hand up in front of the whole class
Whilst some students did express some discomfort at being forced to talk to others about their ideas, they did recognise that this was an important ‘life’ skill and that you do often have to cooperate with people you may not want to. As for feeling that they couldn’t necessarily trust their peers, I hope that in time and with ‘training’ in the classroom, students will become more accustomed to feeling responsible for teaching others and this will ensure that all students experience a high quality learning experience in this situation.
Go into any English classroom in the UK, and inevitably you will find displays telling students to PEE/PEA or PEEL (and for some, apparently, PQE). For anyone unfamiliar with these acronyms, they stand for point, evidence, explain and/or language analysis. This is a writing frame to help students structure their responses to texts. It works very effectively in getting students to provide interpretations, support their ideas with quotations and to then analyse the author’s use of language. These are all key skills in the English curriculum at KS3/4 and 5.
Some of the time, simply asking students to following the PEEL structure is enough. They’ve had it taught to them so many times that if you ask them to read a chapter and write about it using PEEL, they are able to do so quite competently.
However, in KS3 or for those who are in KS4 but struggle to remember the structure or to use it correctly, there are a number of strategies to encourage them to do so.
The first key barrier we come across is that many students are lacking in a wide range of vocabulary. This then means that if they are coming across words with which they are unfamiliar, it can create huge challenges in being able to actually discuss their effect. Using talk as much as possible in the classroom is key. Talking about the words, allowing paired talk to unpick the meaning behind the words or explore the connotations of words is vital in allowing students the opportunity to succeed in reading tasks.
Secondly, the idea of analysis or layers of meaning in words and language is also quite a difficult concept to grasp. I sometimes begin my lesson by giving students three colours – black, white and red. I then ask them to mind-map everything that that colour can represent or symbolise. I explain to them that this means that these words have connotations and that an author often uses words to create multiple meanings.
And for those kids that say, ‘What if the author just put that word there because he wanted to?’ I show them an image of a Monet painting. I zoom right in so that they can see all of the little dots. Then, I zoom out so they can see the whole painting. I explain that, just like an artist, a writer selects every single word – just like a brush stroke – to create a fantastic overall picture for his reader.
One strategy that works well in helping students to get to grips with the PEEL paragraph is the guided annotations of quotes to be very useful. For a very weak ability student or class, I would start off by providing the quotations I’d like them to look at. I’d provide prompt questions. Again, these can be differentiated. They can either be generalised (‘What message is the author conveying here?’ or ‘Are there any language techniques used) or they can be specifically tailored to the language of the quotation. I’d begin by ‘live-modelling’ on the board:
* Put the quote on the board
* Use questions to elicit answers from the students
* Annotate the quote, identifying language techniques, significant words or phrases etc.
* Verbalise your thinking process as you go
I’d then ask the students to do the same but to do it to another quote. For very weak students, prompt questions tailored to the language of the quote is key.
Another strategy that works really well is the use of a table. Again, this can be filled in as much as you need in advance to differentiate effectively for your group. The table can have an ‘interpretation’ box, followed with a ‘relevant quote’, then ‘significant words or phrases’ and finally
‘analysis of significant words or phrases’. By breaking it down into smaller sections, students can separate each of the skills involved in the writing of PEEL paragraphs. Once completed, students need to simply write it up.
However, one disadvantage of PEEL paragraphs is that students become so used to certain sentence stems that they can repeat these over and over again and their writing becomes very monotonous. Some students may find these writing frames are restrictive and some exam boards are moving away from it too. Trying to wean students off of these writing frames is vital to ensure that they can write naturally and with their own style.