Direct instruction and English Language exam practice
Incorporating DI approaches into walk-through mocks.
This year, I’ve delivered Walking-Talking mock exams a little differently from before. I’ve told the pupils all of the answers before asking them to write. I’ve talked far more, and gone into far more detail about the specifics of answering each question. I’ve not asked teachers to formally assess any of what they’ve written, asking them instead to give generalised, whole-class feedback. I’ve amalgamated everything I want them to know in detailed, direct instruction-inspired scripts.
From what I can see so far, the impact has been far greater.
‘Walking-Talking’ mock exams are increasingly popular. The premise is that you get your Year 11s in the hall, preferably sitting in the seat they will be sitting in during exams. You give them a paper, but rather than letting them loose to complete the paper in exam conditions, you talk them through what they should be doing, how they should be doing it and when they should be doing it. You explain things like the order they should approach the questions, how long they should spend on each part and when they should move on. Traditionally, teachers will assess the work the pupils produce during them. They’ve been used more and more widely, propelled by PiXL conferences, some excellent blogs and shared resources on Twitter.
I’ve done them with groups since the new English specification came in and I’ve found them productive, especially with AQA Language Paper 2. This non-fiction paper is straightforward enough, but students can easily trip themselves up with dodgy exam technique, poor time management and not recognising that what the questions are asking them is actually pretty simply. Having been an examiner for Language Paper 2, I’ve seen first-hand the issues that so many students get themselves into that costs them huge numbers of marks. From what I could see while examining, many candidates didn’t understand the main point of the paper: to really think about the contrasting ways non-fiction writers write about a similar topic. Students would frequently attempt to answer questions without having properly read the sources. They’d answer question 4 where they should have answered question 2, and then they’d leave question 4 (a 16-mark question) out altogether (if you don’t believe me, take a look at the November 2018 examiners’ report which makes for some enlightening reading). There are clearly some substantial issues with approaches to the paper across the country; talking and walking students through the exam definitely helps avoid these trip hazards.
But this year, I’ve tried a few changes.
Direct instruction scripts
This year, I’ve delivered Walking-Talking mocks through the use of detailed, DI-inspired scripts. The scripts incorporate not only exam technique and timings, but also the suggested answers to each question and huge swathes of information lifted from the examiners’ reports. You can have a look at the script I’ve written at the link at the top of the page. It’s based on the November 2018 paper you can get from the eAQA website. It’s still in the early stages, but I think the benefits are already clear.
Cognitive load and memory
Memory is triggered by location, so telling pupils about exam technique while they are sitting in the same seats as they will be in May is clearly beneficial. On top of this, this year I’ve required pupils to do far less cognitive processing than ever before. I’ve tried to make the whole thing as easy as possible. Before, I would talk pupils through exam technique but still require them to do the reading, understanding, processing and answering of the questions relatively independently. I would now argue that if the purpose of the walk-through is to gain confidence in exam technique, this puts far too much strain on the pupils. Now, after asking them to read the sources, I summarise them, telling pupils what they should have noticed while reading. For each question, I tell pupils what they should be writing. I tell them what to start with and how to structure each response. They don’t need to be thinking about answers, analysis, selecting information, comparisons, structures, and all the other things the real exam will be assessing. Instead, by giving them more information, I make it easier for them to focus just on what I want them to focus on: the exam technique in maximising marks across the whole paper.
A model of success
At the end of the two-hour session, the pupils have a record of what an excellent paper looks like. With the help of the script, they themselves write a model paper. For me, this is far more powerful and worthwhile than any amount of model answers I could write, or even what we could write as a class during live modelling. Each and every one of them writes a model paper, and the fact that it is produced by each pupil makes it, I think, far more likely to be replicated in future exams.
In this explicit teaching of a student-made model response, I was inspired by Expressive Writing, a direct instruction approach to teaching accurate writing. I hadn’t done it before starting my new school in September, and at first I was a little sceptical. But training by Anthony Radice showed how it can be delivered to have phenomenal impact, especially with those who struggle at KS2 and Year 6 SATs. What Expressive Writing does so well is that it guarantees success in pupil writing. It talks pupils step by step through from sentence level up to basic paragraphs so that they can see what makes an effective and clear piece of writing. Because the pupils are building up their writing in small incremental steps, they are more likely to know exactly what is required in a successful piece of text. In the same way, I wanted talk pupils through exactly what successful responses look like in Language Paper 2.
If I could pick my favourite teaching word, it would be focus. I love those lessons when all pupils are completely and utterly focused on the work in hand, and that focus leads on to that completely engrossed feeling when knowledge leads to awe and excitement. I definitely couldn’t say if 100% of pupils in the hall that hot Friday afternoon before half-term were all awe-inspired by what they were working on, but I think many of them were completely engrossed. They worked incredibly hard, and that hard work was contagious. The subsequent feeling of pride and satisfaction in their word was lovely to see. It reminded me a little bit of the Chinese School programme on TV a while back, where the method of Direct Instruction preferred by the Chinese teachers in a Hampshire comprehensive led to far better test results. By putting all pupils together in the hall and explaining the minutiae of how to answer questions, pupils focused better with fewer distractions. They learned how to approach the demands of the exam more efficiently.
Moving towards detailed DI scripts for our walking-talking mocks has made it easier for good practice and expertise to be replicated and shared. In an immediate sense, it allowed us to have two rooms of students, the main exam hall and the extra-time room, without compromising the information they received. The experience of the mock was consistent across the year group.
It also means that the benefits of training are effortlessly shared. I’ve done endless amounts of training in English Language, as both a teacher and as an examiner. It’s so important to share the results of training in CPD and department meetings, but I love the fact that DI scripts disseminates training to teacher and pupils instantly.
Before, all English teachers would fully mark the walking-talking mocks according to the mark scheme. These marks would contribute to reporting home. This always felt a bit strange, as the outcomes were inflated due to the support with exam technique and timings. This year, the very purpose of the walk-through is inflated outcomes. We want the pupils to be producing high quality, structured work. Because of this, we won’t be marking or assessing the work. Instead, we’ll read the papers carefully, give whole-class feedback and use what we see to inform our planning. Timing is crucial here: we’ve scheduled a full mock exam for 6 weeks after the walk-through. The idea is that just as pupils are beginning to forget some of the exam technique they’ve learned, they will be asked to complete another paper. Putting them back in the hall six weeks after the walk-through should trigger in their memory what a successful response looks like, giving them the opportunity to replicate successful responses independently.
I’d be interested to hear how others have incorporated direct instruction approaches to teaching in other elements of their practice, and feel free to use my scripts for your own schools: it would be great to hear how it goes.