In an ideal world, when we asked any of our students a question, they would respond with a detailed, thoughtful, and well-structured answer that displayed their subject knowledge but also their critical thinking skills. We would smile triumphantly – safe in the knowledge that they were ready to put that answer into writing.
In reality, this rarely happens. In fact, this rarely happens even in the adult world. Our speech is characterised by a lack of structure: it is formed on the spot and because of this, we don’t always have time to choose the most appropriate words or make our points effectively. Add to this the pressure on the student of being essentially tested on a piece of knowledge in front of a judging panel of their peers – and teachers often find themselves faced with embarrassed one-word answers and lots of unsure ‘sort of like’s and ‘um’s.
So what can we do to help?
Making the Leap
Imagine you are an English teacher asking a student to analyse the language of Shakespeare. Now, skip past the groans and the rolling of the eyes and you might arrive at the following conversation:
Teacher: How does Shakespeare use language to present Macbeth in this extract?
Student: He seems a bit, like, evil… ‘cause he wants to kill the king?
Now, happily, this student has achieved various things already: he has made a judgement about a character, he has referred to an event in the text as evidence, and he has even used an element of evaluation by using the verb ‘seems’. Great start! There’s just one problem: in the written exam, that short and snappy response needs to turn into something like the answer below.
Already, the audience is distrustful of Macbeth by this point in the play, since he has previously shown signs of being excessively power-hungry. The alliteration ‘dark and deep desires’ hints at the internal struggle the character experiences at this point. The adjective ‘dark’, with connotations of evil and secrecy, suggest that his hunger for power drives him to want to commit the darkest of deeds at that time – regicide – which, during James 1st’s reign and with the recent gunpowder plot, would have deeply shocked and outraged the 15th-century audience… (etc).
When we consider the leap that needs to be made between the verbal response and the written response, we realise that we cannot possibly send this student to the writing stage of this task yet (although, under the pressure of time constraints, some teachers feel they have to). Instead, we need to provide the students with the tools they need to make this leap. The strategy suggested below is based on educational research including Doug Lemov’s Format Matters technique (2015) and Corbett and Strong’s Talk for Writing strategies (2011).
The first and simplest strategy for improving students’ verbal responses is asking them to restate their answer with certain conditions attached to it. The golden rule of this technique is never to let students away with one-word answers. No matter how they answer the question, it is extremely unlikely that they will have answered it exactly as you would want them to in their written version. Always ask them to restate it, providing them with tools to bring them closer to the ideal written answer.
Here are some examples of how we might ask students to restate a simple, one-word answer:
Ask them to restate their answer in a full sentence.
Ask them to restate their answer with evidence.
Ask them to restate their answer using the word ‘connotations’.
Ask them to restate their answer using the word ‘despite’.
Ask them to restate their answer, referring to the audience.
Often, it is very tempting to ask for these elements individually and from different students. This is fine early on in a course or in the year – but the closer we get to the exam, the more we must acknowledge that students are not tested on their ability to give information and evidence and evaluation separately, but rather on their ability to synthesise and articulate this information in a sophisticated manner.
This is why the same student must completely restate their answer, elaborating in full sentences and with the conditions that you have outlined. Hopefully, by the time they have restated their answer four times, they have begun to move much closer to the ‘ideal’ written answer. Moreover, in a classroom setting, the other students have heard the ideal answer and witnessed the process used to arrive at it. You have also set a high standard for the students’ spoken answers – your next student is unlikely to give a one-word response! (You’re even less likely to accept it if they do.)
The examples given above are based on the subject of English but can be applied to any subject especially where students have to produce long written responses or complex answers with multiple steps.
Moving to the Writing Task
At this point, you might think your students are still not quite ready to make the leap to the written task. Don’t worry – there are some more great teaching techniques you can use to give them some extra support.
It’s a good idea, for example, to approach long written answers in small manageable chunks at first – this gives them practice and makes the structure of the writing more familiar to them. That’s why, at Get My Grades, we’ve broken down our English course into manageable concepts and we provide detailed, meaningful feedback even for shorter writing tasks. This helps to build students’ confidence as they progress towards more difficult or exam-style writing tasks.
To give your students access to a whole range of writing assistance, exam tips, practice questions, and exam-board-specific content – all of which you can set and track alongside them – find more information about our platform on our website.
In this blog series, we have blog posts about probing questions and other useful resources for writing development, as well as more ‘talk for writing’ techniques based on educational research.
Corbett, P. & Strong, J. (2011). Talk for Writing across the curriculum. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Lemov (2015) Teach Like a Champion. Jossey-Bass: USA
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