Even at Christmas you can’t walk through a book shop without seeing piles of Past Exam Paper collections, staring threateningly back. Exam preparation is on the horizon and publishers are rubbing their hands. My previous post on past papers made my thoughts clear. I have always said that I dislike them and everything they stand for. As an English teacher who believes my subject is skills based, I think the only purpose they serve is to emphasise to students what they don’t know rather than teach them anything new.
Over the years I’ve tried to find ways to use them effectively in the English classroom. Using various Assessment is for Learning techniques and co-operative learning strategies I’m beginning to see how they can work really well as a teaching tool. Active learning is the key, I think, especially in the Close Reading/interpretation section of the papers. So, rather than merely reading and answering the questions in isolation, there is collaboration, disputation, walking around the classroom and a whole lot of learning. I give three fifty minute lessons to this task, depending on the level of the class, but the time is more than worth it. Here’s a quick guide.
1- Issue passages. Read out loud, depending on the ability level of the class. If you allow the class to read on their own, give a time frame with which you think they should all cope. It provides a framework for them and allows the rest of the lesson to flow freely.
2- When reading is finished, issue highlighters and ask students to highlight words they know rather than those they don’t. The looks on their faces when you ask them to do this is priceless but by the end they see almost completed covered passages and this emphasizes the high level of vocabulary they possess.
3 Allow them to find someone who knows what they don’t. This is when things get noisy and they get to walk around the room. Again give a limited time frame, I usually give ten to fifteen minutes depending on the class, for students to wander about, discussing their unknown words and allowing them to explain meanings to each other. I will keep saying that someone in the room will know the word they are looking for. An excellent way of encouraging collaboration and developing contextual understanding.
4- I then allow a final ten minutes as students refer to dictionaries as a last resort. You could have a brief feedback session if there are still any difficulties but this rarely happens. At this point, all challenging vocabulary has been accessed.
5- Now issue questions instructing students to, In pairs, read through all questions highlighting challenging ones. What makes them challenging? This could be a whole class discussion afterwards or individual help. Whatever works for you at the time.
6- In the next period, assess. I do think this needs to be done under exam conditions. Rows. Silence. This will be the exercise they have to complete in February and May so it makes sense that they develop experience in doing this. They get to use highlighted passages, of course.
In his book ‘Embedding Formative Assessment’, Dylan Wiliam offers plenty of active strategies to use in your classroom every day. He emphasizes the point throughout his book that grades bring learning to an end and we must avoid them as long as possible. The purpose of completing this close reading/ interpretation task is not to get a grade. Students object at first but do start to see the benefits if you persist. He provides an example where a teacher does not even mark the completed papers.
‘Instead, during her next period with the class, each group of four students receives their unscored papers and one blank examination paper and has to compile the best composite examination paper response they can.’
(Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment)
All of this lead me to…
7- Don’t return student papers. Oh, you may want to grade them privately for your records – perhaps photocopy them then – but it would end the learning if you returned them with grades. Issue one passage, one set of questions and one sheet of A4 lined paper to each group. Today’s task is to complete the perfect group response to this Past Paper, for which they will all receive the group grade.This is, I think, where the real learning occurs. Collaboration, argument, competition even. I haven’t had a class which did not respond well to this and learn so much more from a silent response. You can use this with any newspaper article or passage from a book but, perhaps, past papers have their place in English after all.