Incendiary Teaching of Writing

I Am Incensed

Today I came across an English teaching resource advertised and available for purchasing, targeted at teaching for a current GCSE English Language Paper 1 Section B [Writing] component, and a segment used to illustrate the resource as well as appeal to potential buyers is abysmal.

I will not name where exactly this is advertised, nor offer any more description of the full contents. I’m not entirely sure why I am being so circumspect other than the sorely tested sense of professional courtesy I still feel: assuming it is written by a fellow teacher and that its intentions are well-meant. However, I am genuinely angered that any other teacher might be enticed to buy this, and worse, use it as a model for encouraging, in this specific example, students’ similar descriptive writing.

This model for such writing is awful. It is typical of the over-written, intense word-level nonsense that has been foisted on students over many years in the misguided notion that its very wordiness will score marks for students in an examination. It is a classic write-by-numbers model, a misconceived template where a language focus is made at the expense of actual communication. As I am in danger of over-explaining in my annoyance, here is the given paradigm:

The sky was a dark ocean that had been ripped apart by the streaming sunlight. Heavy clouds hung silently like retreating enemies. Slowly, a blue canvas emerged, bathing the cottage in a natural glow; it was a truly beautiful sight. The clouds groaned as they dissolved into the midwinter air. Summer had gone. Autumn threatened with cool swishing winds and darkening skies. For now however, the clouds allowed one last glimpse of the departing summer.

[and no apology for the pedantry, but if modelling for students, it must be accurate: thus the last sentence should read For now, however, the clouds…..]

I want to unpick every detail that doesn’t work simply in terms of common sense, let alone expose the mess of the linguistic jumble, but I’ll avoid that superfluous venting: any intelligent reader will see and hear the descriptive conflicts. What is immediately obvious is how this has been constructed: the first impulse is to use as many nouns, verbs and adjectives as possible, assuming these will be tick-boxed and rewarded in a mark scheme; the next impulse is to employ as much personification and alliteration as possible for exactly the same reason.

It is not about evoking the last moments of summer.

As an examiner of a GCSE English Language creative writing paper, I have seen students emulate this kind of formulaic ‘exam’ writing, and do so to the detriment of meaningfulness and to themselves because they have not been treated as writers but rather as mechanisms in the acquiring of requisite exam grade passes. It would be churlish I suppose to ignore the insipid pressures that will be put on many teachers to make this kind of shift from teaching to training.

I must also stress than Awarding Bodies need to do more to clarify skills descriptors in mark schemes. This existing GCSE hierarchical strand for language use in Writing is of course a shorthand, but guidance needs to be provided to demonstrate good practice at achieving these descriptors [within the examining context], as well as warnings about teaching a mechanistic approach to them – the caveat embedded in examiner training and their eventual practice too:

  • Simple vocabulary
  • Simple vocabulary; simple linguistic devices
  • Begins to vary vocabulary with some use of linguistic devices
  • Conscious use of vocabulary with some use of linguistic devices
  • Vocabulary clearly chosen for effect and appropriate use of linguistic devices
  • Increasingly sophisticated vocabulary and phrasing, chosen for effect with a range of successful linguistic devices
  • Extensive vocabulary with conscious crafting of linguistic devices
  • Extensive and ambitious vocabulary with sustained crafting of linguistic devices

Problem areas in this shorthand are the repeated reference to linguistic devices, the term conscious use and extensive. I like crafting and I think terms like sophisticated – again, with exemplification – are useful when accompanied by other similar terms in that assessment ladder.

I dislike conscious use [though I understand it] because it makes writing sound like the ‘construction’ model for sale I am criticising. Indeed, we should know the most effective writing is that which doesn’t foreground its selecting of language – it is more fluent than this, that fluency coming from students writing as writers. I dislike linguistic devices because it makes a requisite of these: a brilliant piece of descriptive writing can exist entirely without figurative expressions. That doesn’t mean it has to, but it can. The mark scheme – being what it is – cannot articulate this!

As co-author of the Cambridge University Press Writing Workshops, self- advertised on this blog here, I have put my experience of and attitude to the teaching of writing in this book. I don’t mention now to advertise yet again, but do so because anyone is as free to see and then criticise my thoughts about and examples of this as I am of the turgid model that so incensed me today.

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3 thoughts on “Incendiary Teaching of Writing

  1. Pingback: Woeful Wow Words | mikeandenglish

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