Developing critical and careful readers of non-fiction texts in Year 11.

12 Jan 2018

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it.”

Henry Ford

Having had a number of what should have been post gluttony hibernation days ruthlessly stolen by mock examination marking over the holidays, I am determined that this investment will lead to tangible improvements for my Year 11 group. Mocks can often fuel workload frustrations, particularly when they are given a cursive glance at the grade by students, then lost in the busy maze of a new term. For me, it is vital that they play a significant role in informing the teaching focus for the next few months.

My first mission was to draw up a list of targets that the class as a whole currently need to work on. I won’t depress myself by writing out the epic list here, but for the purpose of this post, the areas relate to developing an improved understanding of how to write about non-fiction texts. The focus areas are as follows:

  1. Develop a more sophisticated understanding of writers’ views and how they are conveyed.
  2. Demonstrate more personal engagement with non-fiction texts.
  3. Understand the nuances of how non-fiction texts are constructed.
  4. Be able to comment on how arguments are developed.

Easy. Cough. Today’s lesson began to try to unpick some of these areas and to aim to make it clearer for the group about how to develop a more critical viewpoint of non-fiction texts. To do this, we used this splendid India Knight article from from ‘The Sunday Times’. In it, Knight outlines her views about social media and how she is planning to adopt her approach to using it in 2018. She is a terrific writer, full of humanity, understanding of the human condition and optimism on a weekly basis.

One post mock realisation is that I am not giving this group enough time to grapple with texts and to work out meanings for themselves. In the mock they struggled to do this independently, partly because I haven’t planned in enough opportunities for them to read challenging non-fiction texts on their own.  Usually, in class we would read texts together initially and discuss as we went through, they haven’t had enough completely “unseen” opportunities. So the first task was very simple, they had a seven minute timer on the board and in that time I expected them to have read the text and write a fifty word summary of what the article was about. This is useful as it means they condense down the text and consider the driving argument as they read. They then had to share in groups their overviews and decide who had the most effective response (useful in helping them to recognise effective summaries). We then heard some examples to clear up any misconceptions and I modeled my own:

Knight’s article is an exploration of the impact of social media and a mission statement about how she is aiming to use it differently in 2018. She highlights how although it can often fuel anxiety, if we focus on the joy in the small things it can make us hopeful.

The article was copied on A3 sheets for them so the next stage was to number each paragraph. What I wanted to do was was to slowly (cue shameless self-promotion: my book ‘Slow Teaching’ will be out on March 3rd and can be pre-ordered here) unpick how Knight had constructed the text in order to prove her argument about the importance of finding joy in the little things. We talked about the text being constructed like a jigsaw – each piece carefully plotted to fit together and reiterate points.

They then completed the task I have ingeniously named: ‘Track the Text’ (about the best I can do on the first week back in January.) That meant that around the text the students worked in pairs to outline the purpose of each paragraph and how Knight had illustrated her points. We started this together and discussed her opening paragraph in detail:

‘I am determined not to spend 2018 fretting about things over which I have no control, such as Donald Trump, or indeed Kim Jong-un (mildly diverting fact: the latter reportedly hates his ears, and if you look closely at him, they are often Photoshopped). 

Obviously, I coupled this on the PowerPoint with two contrasting images of Kim Jong-un’s ears. Very interesting. They came up with the following: the use of personal tone through the first person account; the focus on “fretting” which dominates the article; the reference to Trump and Jong-un as the main driving force of anxiety fueled social media stories; the light-hearted tone secured through the humour in the reference to Kim Jong-un’s ears.

They then did this in pairs for each paragraph, with a focus on tone, word choice and techniques employed. This is one students’ annotations (she obviously took far too much enjoyment in colour coding it!)

Hopefully, doing more of this task will help them to appreciate how a writer crafts their argument and what methods they use to support their points, be it linguistically or structural.

Next, I wanted to approach a similar question to one that they found very difficult in their mock exam: What do you think and feel about India Knight’s views on social media and the way she expresses these views?

The difficult aspect of this is it requires both personal engagement with the text, alongside an understanding of the writer’s method. I want to do lots more on comparative examples this year, using this a way to make it absolutely clear to students how to move forward in terms of their marks. First, we looked at this example, which I think would receive four or five marks:

I think it is clear from the extract that Knight believes elements of social media are negative. This is clear from the fact she says it does “atrocious harm to people’s mental health”. She then gives a series of examples which show how negative it is. I also think that she feel strongly about this in emotive words like “atrocious”. I also think that she thinks the range of news we receive makes us more anxious: “induces a low-level state of anxiety and unease”.

I then agree with her views when she says that “the internet is also populated” with things that “can cheer your day right up”, there is lots of positive things on the internet. She provides examples such as: “a joke or a delicious recipe”. I then agree with her that we need to focus more on positive things in our life to help us feel optimistic. She concludes her article with a contrast to the opening and the statement: “don’t let the bad stuff get you down”. I think this is right to focus on the positive rather than the negative.

They had to come up with the limitations of the response: simplistic understanding of method; no focus on language or structure points; no real engagement with the argument rather than simplistic agreements. We then compared it to this opening of a response, which I think is more top band:

In the opening paragraph Knight outlines her personal aim to avoid “fretting over things which I have no control”, I believe she does this in order to set up a focus on the more positive and optimistic examples later in her article. The references to “Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un” are used to highlight the particularly negative news stories which are frequently seen on social media. This begins to successfully influence her reader’s views on the way social media can make us anxious.

She then further exemplifies the negative consequences of social media with her emotive reference to “atrocious harm to people’s social health”. I feel she successfully supports this claim by referencing the social media giant Facebook’s admission that “the site poses a mental-heath risk to some uses”. I agree with her that social media can result in increased negative feelings – with its relentless focus on issues. By then providing a personal viewpoint on how she has adopted different strategies in using social media, “I am cutting down on the number of US news outlets”, I feel Knight begins to successfully persuade readers on the importance of avoiding certain areas of social media. Her comic use of “muting the obsessive political nerds”, highlights the need to avoid certain individuals and encourages her readers to reflect on their use of the internet.

They then made a list of the successful features of this response: more perceptive engagement with writers’ methods; clearer understanding of how the text has been constructed; more of a focus on techniques and language with increased textual support. I then removed all the scaffolding and gave them ten minutes to have a go at their own answer to the above question. Lots of them are also not covering enough points at the moment, so each lesson will have a short burst of exam style practise – with the aim to improve their ability to quickly get points down.

Looking at their responses this afternoon there is still lots to do, particularly in terms of covering enough in timed conditions. This approach, however, did mean they focused more on Knight’s arguments and how she had constructed them. I will aim to have this as a repeated and clear structure to non-fiction revision lessons we do: read independently; summarise the article; track the argument on A3 paper; reflect on examples; then independently produce a response in exam conditions. Who knows, to steal India Knight’s delightfully optimistic ending to her article from the Sheenagh Pugh’s poem ‘Sometimes’, perhaps they might just get the hang of it by May and seamlessly reveal their sophisticated understanding of non-fiction texts:

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

Thanks for reading.



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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