We hold the OCR English subject forum twice a year, in the spring and autumn terms. The aim is to bring together a range of representative voices from across the subject community to discuss and feed back on key issues and priorities for English as a subject.
The forum also has a valuable function to provide a strategic steer for improving and developing our qualifications and related support. We really welcome the chance for lively and engaged debate and discussion, which the forum unfailingly delivers.
Theo Maniski, a linguist specialist at the University of Bedfordshire, introduced the topic of so-called ‘non-specialist English teachers’. He challenged this misnomer, arguing that as native speakers, English teachers are inherently skilled in the English Language. There is often a perceived divide between linguistics and literary experience and perspectives – but these aren’t mutually exclusive.
In a classroom context, the thorny issue arises of preparing for high stakes, final assessments: a model predicated on measuring what candidates know based on what they do in a two-hour exam at the end of the course. This narrows assessment judgements through the funnel of exams and examiners determining what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This is very context-driven and provides only a brief snapshot of performance and ability.
In GCSE Language (both reading and writing) students are encouraged to look at the ‘effectiveness’ of language, requiring students to make links between linguistic knowledge and effectiveness. The question of ‘effectiveness’ is problematic as reader response is ‘personal’ – analysing texts for their effectiveness suggests that there is a ‘right’ reading in order to find the text effective in some way.
In his presentation, Francis Gilbert of Goldsmiths, University of London made an impassioned plea from a teacher trainer perspective for young students to have the opportunity to experience learning rather than performance-driven teaching, for example through using learning logs to evidence their own learning and enable reflection. No-one would refute that teachers work in a target/agenda/performance-driven environment – perhaps there’s potential for positive change with the focus on a broad and balanced curriculum in the new Ofsted framework?
From an exam board perspective, the challenge is allaying teacher anxieties regarding assessment preparation at the same time as encouraging freedom in teaching – as a starter for six, this could be signalled through clear and consistent messaging that teaching to the test does not necessarily lead to good results.
The afternoon session focussed on recent classroom-based research into developing good practice at GCSE. In particular, effective ways to develop reading and writing skills in the classroom without the need to focus on assessment.
Barbara Bleiman shared English and Media Centre’s (EMC) research into approaches for studying a class novel at KS3. She highlighted key findings from the research project based in a school in east London, which involved using a new scheme of work with several Year 9 mixed ability classes.
The project led to a new way of thinking: how do you approach a novel? Central to this was the idea of a shared ‘agenda’ about the novel, with students encouraged to add their own ideas and develop their thinking about what was important or interesting. Group work was a key element but by no means the only vehicle for facilitating this.
The embargo on any direct preparation or focus on GCSE assessment allowed for attention on the big things (ideas, concepts, genre, narrative, response). By way of example, quotes were used to pull out ideas and develop the agenda; detail strongly at the service of the big idea and not the other way round.
Changing the classroom dynamic to allow students to share ideas and to give teachers insight into those ideas resulted in students discussing technical language, linguistic and literary techniques as part of a natural discussion rather than following a list of devices.
Taking EMC’s findings on board and reflecting on our customer feedback around the use of subject terminology, our Examiner Reports for this summer’s exams will be used to reinforce clear and consistent messaging around the use of subject terminology.
You can find a full write-up of EMC’s research findings and associated documents on their blog.
This linked neatly to a presentation from Helen Lines of the Centre for Research in Writing, University of Exeter, sharing findings on how students talk and write about texts at GCSE. Her research highlighted the challenges of teaching and consolidating grammar knowledge at KS3 and KS4, including the approach to subject terminology.
As part of helping students to understand the reader-writer relationship, there is a need to develop students’ confidence in providing personal responses rather than the response that it is thought the examiner is looking for, the latter often resulting in reductive, uninspiring comments about texts.
We’re keen to support the work with Exeter University further, ideally through a school-based study focusing on writing skills at GCSE – if you’re a centre in the south-west currently teaching our GCSE English specifications and this sounds like something you’d be keen to get involved with, we’d love to hear from you! Contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re always looking to welcome new members to the English subject forum so if you’re keen to contribute to wide-ranging discussions about English and to help shape our qualifications and support, we want to hear from you!
If you have any questions please submit your comments below or email us at email@example.com. You can also sign up to receive email updates or follow us on Twitter at @OCR_English.
Kate Newton, OCR English Subject Advisor
Kate has worked at OCR for 6 years and is a member of the English subject team with particular responsibility for GCSE English Literature and AS/A Level English Language and Literature (EMC).
She previously worked for a number of national public sector education organisations, including the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) and the General Teaching Council (GTC), primarily on new policy initiatives. Prior to that, after graduating with a BA Joint Hons in English Literature and Education from Cardiff University, Kate started her professional career with a competitor Awarding Body (mentioning no names!).