The problem with techniques

It’s costing our students marks: many, many marks.

Let me try and explain how in this short post.

Firstly, can I state from the offset that I like techniques. I think we have a duty, as English teachers, to engage with the craft of writing; of course we do. I was excited to learn more recently about subtle varieties of repetition from esteemed Twitter colleagues like Mark Roberts and many others. We have terminology lists for every module for every unit across Years 7-11. I plan to have Faculty Meetings next year with more focus on building teachers’ subject knowledge of techniques. I admit I had no idea what Commoratio was until I spoke to Mr Pink!

However, it is the foregrounding of this teaching within the analytical method that I have a big problem with, and, if my examining so far is anything to go by, in my opinion, marks are tumbling around the country as a result.

Our passion for techniques, and for some, sharing new, increasingly sophisticated and subtle terms, sometimes from Year 7, with students, is leading them to equate discussing techniques as a necessity for top marks.

On 9 out of 10 occasions, this is NOT the case.

I am an English Language examiner this year, and have been for many years for Eduqas,  as well as an English teacher for 12 years, and it is quite clear that across the ability range, across schools, a tiny minority of students are able to analyse techniques effectively. Most invariably get themselves into a huge mess in their desperation to use them, as they substitute focusing on sharp analysis of the quote’s meaning/effect for waffley, laboured technique spotting.

Top students are often using long wordy paragraphs examining language and structural techniques around a single quote, sometimes effectively (usually not so), but, as a result, they only manage to cover three quotes in this way in the allocated 15 mins per question. They will not earn more than 3 or 4 marks for this then. (It’s roughly 1-1.5 marks per quote analysed sharply I reckon, although this is obviously not set in stone)  They should be covering 7 or 8 quotes  (1 every 2 minutes) for the top marks.

Lower ability students are waffling on about techniques they don’t understand, ending up with lines like ‘creates a picture in the reader’s head’ and earning next to nothing.

For all students, I’m really concerned that they don’t understand why they’re losing marks left, right and centre. We’ve raved about techniques and they’ve learned them, and they’re going to damn well go in and find them!

Let’s look at two fictional, amalgamated examples from this year’s exam paper, that I’ve written (based on things I’ve read from students). Disturbingly (with recent events -sorry), it’s about escaping from a house fire, and the question I’ve chosen is  ‘How is drama and excitement created by the writer?’

EXAMPLE 1

The writer uses a compound sentence in the line ‘she doubles up with a fit of coughing and splutters’ which creates drama powerfully and makes the reader think about it being exciting. The use of repetition is very powerful in the piece adding a strong sense of drama in the line ‘Fire, Ruby, Fire.’We learn ‘she hoped the fire wouldn’t hear them’ and this is personification because of course the fire can’t really hear and it isn’t a person. The writer’s using this for effect.In the line ‘Gasping, retching and hanging on to one another’ the writer uses a triplet and high energy verbs to build up excitement and sparks drama in the text and within the reader making them alert and scared for the girls. To make it dramatic, the writer uses a range of sentence lengths and some are short  in the line ‘We’re human chimneys’ which make the reader slow down and the reader feels on edge, and the text pauses for what will happen next. Another way the writer’s kept it dramatic is by lists of verbs and adjectives which makes the reader worried in the line ‘She tries to push up the window which is stuck’ and this adds an atmosphere that keeps the reader hooked. Finally, in the line ‘The fires of Hell’, the word ‘hell’ has a capital to denote it is a noun, and it also comprises part of a complex sentence which creates imagery in the reader’s mind. 

  • Sounds amazing, right? They’ve learned some techniques though! I’d give it 0/10. Not one accurate analysis of meaning. I’ve tried to point out common avenues below of how many students deal unsuccessfully with techniques from my example above:

  • Examining the mechanics
  • Explaining its definition
  • Merging too many techniques together at once for clarity
  • Desperation to link back to the question too early before meaning/effect considered.

EXAMPLE 2

In the line ‘she doubles up with a fit of coughing and splutters’, drama is created as the reader learns Ruby is struggling to breathe and choking due to the fire. The call ‘Fire, Ruby, Fire.’ indicates how Ruby’s sister is desperate to wake her to ensure she doesn’t die in the flames. The writer uses the phrase ‘she hoped the fire wouldn’t hear them’ and this reflects the fear of the two girls who are desperate to escape the menacing clutches of the fire that appears to be listening out for them, adding to the drama. In the line ‘Gasping, retching and hanging on to one another’ the writer observes that the girls are becoming ill from the fumes, almost vomiting, but using each other for comfort – the way death seems imminent here adds to the drama. The image ‘We’re human chimneys’ illustrates the way the girls are immersed in the smoke and they are breathing it out constantly. Another way the writer’s kept it dramatic is the sense of hopelessness as everything appears to conspire against them, as their escape route is seemingly blocked ‘She tries to push up the window which is stuck’ .Finally, in the line ‘The fires of Hell’, the word ‘hell’ indicates the sheer scale of the fire and has associations with the biblical place of torturous suffering, which the girls are facing. 

 No techniques whatsoever. I’d still give it 8/10. Techniques exploration, yes, might have driven it into 9 or 10, but really- is it worth foregrounding this element in our teaching for the sake of 2 marks?!

Look where my bold type comes each time in Example 2. That’s where my tick would come. It’s where the meaning/effect is sharply nailed, and linked to what’s going on in the story (far more important than identifying the technique in my view, and often forgotten by students who sometimes analyse language in isolation.)

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So, how might we do it differently then, going forward?

  1. Prioritise the analysis of the quote’s meaning/effect every time, and do many, many exercises that encourage students to spot where the tick would come. Make this explicit. Analysing meaning/effect is NOT a lower level skill. It is the crux of reading analysis -more important than technique analysis, and something that many A-level students still consistently don’t quite nail.
  2. Show examples of slightly waffly technique analysis with a sharp nailing of meaning/effect in the middle, and encourage students to condense down the piece of analysis. Being succinct is everything.
  3. Encourage students to get to it quicker (Abandon PEA)  – The line “_____” suggests ___________________ while the technique also indicates…
  4. Share examples of waffly discussion of technique definitions/mechanics, and encourage students to spot why no marks would be awarded.
  5. Talk about techniques being of secondary importance to meaning/effect. Let’s put them in the ‘middle ground’ somewhere. Encourage students to weave them in but don’t overplay them and let’s try not to get too excited by them! It’s the meaning/effect that is what earns the mark and shows real understanding of the writer’s craft.
  6. Discourage students from analysing via ‘technique leads’. e.g. The writer uses similes and compound sentences in this section…  This leads to redundant sentences in my view. A technique analysis sentence must ALWAYS include sharp analysis of meaning/effect to be worthwhile.    Much better to lead by content. e.g. ‘The writer focuses on the desperate struggle and challenge of ________________ in the line “________” and the simile here suggests__________…
  7. Discourage reader obsession. This leads to lines like this ‘This provides tension for the reader as the reader becomes scared and more alert’. Nonsense. I don’t ever remember in my life as a reader, becoming ‘more alert’ when I was reading! It sounds silly and conjures up images of a reader in all kinds of animated poses on their sofa, reading. Surely it sounds more sophisticated to just reference the writer’s intention, and frame it from that perspective? e.g. ‘The writer aims to create tension / a fearful mood here…’

Thanks for reading!

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