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Teaching Structure - A Simpler Approach

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Every time I've taught structure under the new spec (with AQA), I've had a sneaking suspicion that I'm teaching far, far too much and making it much more complex than it needs to be. Having spent a lot of time teaching to lower attaining groups and now working in Further Education (with students sometimes resitting for the 5th/6th time), I'm getting a bit obsessed with simplifying what I teach.

With this in mind, I've recently been obsessing over structure (AO2, P1Q3), how students approach/ plan for it and the answers that they give and I've come to realise that I'm giving them far too much information and they can't use or remember it, so tend to come up with a half baked version of my model (and then struggle in exams).

A couple of years ago, a colleague created the below mnemonic to give students a range of areas to focus on (as the exam paper bullet point hints: 'any other structural features that interest you' - one of these areas should be present and interesting!):

Initially, this was used as part of a PEEL/ PETAL/ PEE model and it worked well in isolation. There was no expectation that students would remember all of the above, but could focus on 2 or 3 of them when analysing a text. However, lower attaining students (and those resitting in Post-16 provision) struggled to recall any of them at times. Further issues also developed when working with resitters who first must experience some 'unteaching' (i.e. removing previously taught misconceptions) which then doesn't leave a lot of time for actual teaching.

Firstly, I tried removing the PEEL/ PETAL/ PEE model and going with the excellent 'What? How? Why?' model as developed by Becky Wood (@shadylady222). Though a good start, students continued to struggle due to issues faced throughout Post-16 (attendance, apathy, negative previous experiences).

Being desperate not to initiate a different mnemonic, I decided to drill down into exemplar answers and mark schemes.

Level 2 and 3 of the 2019 AQA GCSE English Language mark scheme

Deciding to aim the new approach at L3, I came to these conclusions:

'Subject terminology' - vocabulary such as 'First', 'last', 'then', 'after' and 'later' are rewarded (as is any acknowledgement of change in focus)

'Selects examples' - Quotes, evidence or major narrative events

Comments on/ explains the effects - what is suggested by the quote? How does the quote make the reader think/ feel and why?

Using this, I adapted teaching to cover structure by asking students to answer the question with a slight variation on the 'What, How, Why?' model - a 'When? What? Why?' approach:

When: First? Next? Then? Last?

What: What evidence can you find?

Why: Why does the writer do this? What does the quote suggest/ make the reader think/ feel? Why?

Using this method, instead of students struggling to remember what they can talk about, they have a clear idea of what to discuss, how to discuss it and what detail to analyse (and because of this, produce more work of better quality). Recently, we've used Tich Miller by Wendy Cope as a basis and answers have been much more detailed (as shown in the model below to the following question):

Q3. You now need to think about the whole of the source.

How is the text structured to interest you as a reader?

You could write about:

What the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning;

How and why the writer changes the focus as this source develops;

Any other structural features that interest you.

An example structure response using When, What, Why

It is still early days with this approach, but we have found that students remember this approach because of the simplicity of it and also because it is very easy to regularly complete low stakes assessments on it (using a range of media types including short film clips, advertisements, menus, posters, blogs etc.).

We're also finding more variation in student responses and analysis as they have much more freedom and independence in their analysis (as opposed to very similar, slight variation on teacher models which has become the norm).

For us, it works, but I'd be very interested to see how this approach worked with other students in different settings and year groups. Potentially, PEE/ PEEL/ PETAL might still have a place (though massively reduced in scale from its use over the last 15-20 years), but I do think the approach detailed in Becky's blog should be used in the main and hopefully the above taps into some of her innovation.

If you'd like any of the resources detailed above, I'll be posting them to the site soon.


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