By Bob Cox, October 2020
Understanding what we read is complex. Not only do words shimmer and shake in our brains as we interact with them, but the overall context of a paragraph, a chapter, a verse, a long novel takes shape as we read. In a long career, I’ve noticed more and more the potential for a challenging text to inspire pupils’ natural need for exploration and questioning. Many schools have developed a higher level of challenge into a planned curriculum design and what seemed ‘hard’ at first becomes a normal expectation for a lesson over time and practice.
How do our pupils gradually adjust to this? Predicting pupil response can be harder than planning the concepts we are teaching or the aspects of functional English. We can organise our knowledge, our sense of control and our timings but how relevant is the response our pupils make to the text? Are those faces before us happy to listen and take note of our modelling and instructing? Is that what matters most? Do we look for enthusiastic hands up? Do we single out pupils for comments? Do we set focussed tasks in groups and teach more knowledge according to feedback? These are all potentially ways of deepening pupils’ responses to language and meaning as a greater range of styles are encountered in challenging texts.
I’ve seen in so many travels what I call a ‘space for more’ as text immersion develops. It’s a time that could be spent digesting, learning, teaching more and then responding again. Why not exploit the rich materials you are using fully before moving on?
I’ve found it useful as a starting point to examine my own growing relationship with a text. It’s not fixed. I’m learning and thinking all the time. Stage by stage explorations are a good way of introducing a new concept and a text with rich potential for learning. This also prevents a flood effect on the memory. Take this small section from ‘The Door in the Wall’ by HG Wells.
An older man is reflecting upon a strange journey through a green door whilst walking in London when he was younger.
It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky.
I can’t help having two ‘eyes’, one is myself which noticed ‘gladness’ immediately because it seemed a different usage and ‘sun-touched’ as normally they might be described as ‘white’. The other ‘eye’ is my teacher’s one and the one with which I try to support teachers’ pioneering. That’s where I saw a theme emerging where all those words like ‘blueness’ have started to build a semantic field of meaning, affecting previous associations and reading and speaking experiences. In other words, I was reading for teaching! The text was partly talking to me about learning opportunities.
But I hadn’t gone far enough. There is more thinking to be done. In fact, Wells is being much more exact and distinctive than setting up a typical sunny day personification for the world.
What is a ‘penetrating’ and ‘mellower’ light anyhow?
Does ‘faint clear gladness’ actually suggest the beginnings of well-being?
‘Faint’ alters the meaning of the phrase and is a good example of a simple adjective used with a big effect.
These kinds of activities focus our brains around the depth of a word, turning over possibilities and generating enquiry. It’s one of the most important parts of our planning – mastering the materials we use! The rewards for teacher and pupils are enormous as word power is expanded within the context of the writing. Both Alex Quigley and Kelly Ashley have interesting research and ideas on word power:
When it comes to vocabulary knowledge and school success, ‘word depth’ is probably more important than the breadth of our vocabulary
From Closing the Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley
Word learning is personal and we need to unlock pupils’ personal associations with words to help them more effectively organise, categorise and retrieve new words.
From Word Power by Kelly Ashley
So, there is a lot to explore, question and teach just in stage one of introducing the text and the more I acquired understanding the deeper my response went. In short, ‘response’ to words is related to our prior reading and experience. So, first, our own reading needs to be concentrated and thoughtful!
Your pupils’ response will also be conditioned by their own previous, but more limited, notions of weather symbols in writing or sunny day metaphors but your teaching will deepen whatever relationship they start to have with the text. An emotional interaction with words is encouraged too which will have a spin off with writing tasks. By finding other contexts and meanings for ‘faint’ for example, you will have supported a reading habit which recognizes that every word an author chooses counts! The text starts to speak to our pupils’ imaginations. See ‘Shanahan on Literacy’:
Kids learn more from texts when they are engaged in discussions of those texts (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988; Murphy, et al., 2009), but the discussions that have been studied are led by teachers who have read the texts and who are going to help the students to develop a coherent understanding of them.
Timothy Shanahan blog 21st September, 2019.
I’ve heard from many ‘Opening Doors’ schools how teacher confidence has grown each time the text has been used. The possibilities of active and knowledge informed pupil response based on evidence from the text and emotional involvement can grow simultaneously as a teacher’s involvement with the language is enhanced. I’ve seen it happen in so many schools! See the excellent UKLA/Open University research on teachers as readers:
You can use a text like the Wells one, stage by stage, teaching a concept like image making and reinforce learning as you go. A range of methodology is possible from dialogic talk around connotation to instructive sequences on the context in which specific vocabulary is used.
The point remains that being taught more knowledge is integral to a growing pupil response; and our response can deepen simultaneously when challenging texts are used because we are learning so much more too!
Using knowledge well in our teaching is therefore not a dry, emotionally detached activity but an emotionally charged one! We link teaching skills with our text relationship to release something dynamic in our pupils. That’s really exciting.
You might want to cross-refer to this blog where I write about CPD in the classroom every day with challenging texts:
Why not see how you respond to the next stage of the HG Wells fantasy?
It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers. I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur,and caressed their round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with them, and it was as though they welcomed me home.
The playful panther caught me completely by surprise on first reading! You might want to cross-refer at this point with other stories about portals into new worlds or time slips. Literature weaves its way into our consciousness like a tapestry.
So, a journey to a full and responsive understanding of a text is a long one. In reality, with a Shakespeare play for example, a student is digesting different aspects each period of study and so ‘readiness’ may mean a thrilling immersion in a scene or speech at KS2 leading progressively to the study of a full play at KS3/4 which would still necessarily involve a focus on certain concepts. If I watched a new performance of ‘King Lear’ tomorrow I would definitely notice aspects to the drama that had passed me by before. Exams require certain standards to be met in certain ways but to teach English as if it were one route to a set answer underlined forever might be to miss some of the richness and joy which can come with deepening response; and the intellectual involvement of the pupils in what they are learning is likely to surface in more rigorous writing of their own. The focused explorations, once explored in depth, can often be applied to a range of quality writing possibilities. Do enjoy Grace Bailey-Rushton’s piece here, inspired by HG Wells. Grace was a pupil at Ash Grove Academy, Macclesfield when she wrote this:
Stepping through the door, I saw an enchanted garden, rich and verdant, full of the most vibrantly coloured flowers I’d ever seen. Looking up, I notice the sparkle of the sun as it shone through the dancing leaves of the trees that towered over the flowers. Further off, beyond the forest, there was a shimmering lake. I watched as woodland creatures, unafraid, came casually down to the water, making ripples as they drank, which slowly spread outwards across the surface of the water in ever expanding circles. For me, it felt like paradise.
I’d urge you to tap into the kinds of informed responses which challenging texts can stimulate as a way of raising standards by enabling the ‘space for more’, unpredictable as it may be, to open up in your pupils’ minds.
For the full extract from ‘A Door in the Wall’ just email me firstname.lastname@example.org or see ‘Opening Doors to a Richer English Curriculum 10-13’ and a free online 15 minute talk through on ‘A Door in the Wall’ both via:
Author of the opening doors series.
‘Opening Doors to a Richer English Curriculum’ for ages 6-9 and 10-13 co-authors are Leah Crawford and Verity Jones