GCSE Writing Intervention: using the Toulmin method to structure persuasive/discursive writing

One of the fantastic things about our department is the willingness to share resources.

In December my colleague Sam, a very talented NQT, came to show me some work she’d done with her Y11 vocational class. She had been using the Toulmin approach to help them structure their written responses. The shared and independent writing they had done was of a very high standard.

Tell me more about this Toulmin stuff, I cried… eyes lighting up in true English-teacher-geek-style!

Sam explained how she’d adapted the Toulmin method for structuring an argument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Toulmin#The_Toulmin_Model_of_Argument  and

http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~digger/305/toulmin_model.htm )to help students structure written responses. This fitted in so well with what I was trying to do with our weekly writing intervention sessions that, with Sam’s permission, I included it in our second session.

The way it works is by using the opening paragraph as a plan for the rest of the written response.

Pupils are taught the structure, which handily includes a range of punctuation and some sentence variety. They adapt it to suit the subject matter and, in class, use highlighters to indicate the way they will organise the rest of their writing. This helps them get into the ‘Toulmin habit’ which they can hopefully reproduce in the exam.

Toulmin Example

Toulmin Writing Frame

I introduced this to the rest of the staff during  a Literacy INSET I delivered in December. Several subjects (History, Health & Social Care and RE, if I recall correctly) have started using it to help pupils structure written responses.

So, thanks to Sam for her fantastic resources.

And go St. J’s Team English… doing our best to improve our students’ writing, whatever it takes!

A* Vocabulary: building students’ word power.

One of the strands of my GCSE writing intervention has been vocabulary building. In fact, students really enjoyed looking up the ‘A* words’ I gave them. Simple pleasures… or straightforward gratifications if you will!

I’m not sure we do enough explicit vocabulary-building work. This is something I am looking to build into our schemes of learning. I’d be interested in hearing how other schools have done this.

I’m currently designing some posters with a selection of A* words to encourage pupils to consider their vocabulary and we will be launching a ‘Word of the Week’ scheme next term.

In our GCSE Writing intervention lessons, we shared a list of ‘ambitious’ vocabulary. 106 words Pupils were challenged to look up ten of the words and use them in sentences. With my groups, I then used these words in various ‘exit pass’ activities. Pupils were challenged to focus on five words and, in the words of my old English teacher Mrs Rough “make them their own.” I would’t let them leave the room until they’d used one of the words in a sentence. No repetition of sentences was allowed. Other variations on this theme included me demanding definitions of their focus words on entry and exit to my room.

Has it translated into improved performance in the GCSE Writing paper? Only time will tell, but it was a fun activity to do and pupils seemed genuinely surprised at the amount of words out there that they had never read or heard of before.

This is what makes me think I need to make vocabulary building an explicit activity with all my classes.

All help/ideas gratefully received!

(I will be adding ideas the good folk of Twitter share with me, as I have posted this on my Twitter feed.)

Ideas suggested:

@ramtopsgrum: use a “banned words” wall. I  ban: it, thing, like, stuff, youknowwhatImean, undefined pronouns etc. Answers have to be rephrased without these.

@yesiamemmab: even though I teach year 4 I use a ‘criminal words’ system for words such as ‘nice’ , ‘walk’ etc..

@KerryPulleyn: Geoff Barton has a long list of sophisticated vocab on his site. You could have a look at this.

@teacherTonytips: I get them to use 5 new words they have never used before in each piece of creative writing. This helps a lot.

@andrewmillar72: Big fan of ‘what goes in comes out’ mantra. Stress private reading, provide high level texts & model vocab in own speech.

@kevbartle: Has to be modelled by teachers. No dumbing down in SoWs. High level, subject-specific, technically accurate vocal from Y7. Must be embedded in the teaching. Everyday from the moment they arrive till the day they leave. Actually, really high level vocabulary is an equaliser between kids with high and low prior attainment.

@commaficiando: Specific vocab leads to specific ideas and thoughts and understanding what, for example, pathetic fallacy means is no harder than getting what ‘lemon’ means.

GCSE Intervention: Our Tuesday Writing Paper Sessions.

We do a decent job with our GCSE results. Last year, despite the much-publicised grading debacle, our results were up in Language and Literature.

Obviously we all want to continue that upward trend. However these are uncertain times for English students and their teachers, and it sometimes seems hard to know what to do or how best to secure that improvement.

We run revision sessions after school for pupils to attend but, clearly, that doesn’t always hit the students we may really want to reach. Letters and text messages have gone home to parents and carers and revision materials aplenty have been sourced and distributed.

What else to do?

Looking at our timetable, I noticed we had a slot in which all of our English Language classes were being taught at the same time. It got me thinking about how we could use it for a targeted intervention programme.

We teach in setted groups. Our students’ target grades range from A* to E. Sometimes I question the validity of this: do pupils work better in mixed ability groups? (Perhaps the subject for a different blog.) One thing I am certain of though, is that the old adage ‘a change is as good as a rest’ is often true and so I decided to mix the groups up a bit for their intervention lessons. I looked at the aspirational targets we had for our pupils and re-grouped them according to their 4-levels of progress target. I then discussed the groupings with class teachers and we moved some pupils based on them already outperforming against target data.

This through up some interesting anomalies. For example, we now had a number of set 3 pupils in groups with their set 1 peers etc. We felt this would have a positive impact on those students and so decided to give it a go.

I decided to focus on the writing paper for these sessions. By planning the lessons myself I could ensure that the whole cohort were getting the same messages about technique, tactics etc. Sessions were split into short and punchy sections; I wanted them to be pacy and feel different from ‘normal’ 50 minute lessons.

Session 1: vocabulary and punctuation.

Session 2: using the Toulmin structure in persuasive writing and how to improve content marks.

Session 3: audience, purpose and format and a recap on sessions 1 and 2.

(Subsequent posts will discuss the session content.)

We launched the idea to pupils and class lists went up. This caused some consternation in those who don’t like change, but on the day we had excellent attendance and they found their new rooms with minimum fussing. Pupil feedback after the session was very positive. They felt energised and boosted by the delivery. One pupil, who found herself in a “clever group” (her words!) waited at the end and told her teacher how pleased she was: “because I kept up with them and I know I could do that in my exam now too!”

We have our last session in January just before the exam is due to be sat. The final week in December was hijacked slightly by reward activities and mock exams. I hope to re-energise and inspire them before they go in and do battle with their GCSE-fate.

We will probably continue to use the lesson as a way of reaching the whole cohort in a practical, revision-y way as the year progresses.