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A false sense of confidence hinders some students in English. They don’t revise for exams and assessments because they can ‘obviously’ read and write.
They don’t revise the literature texts because they’ve already read the book in lessons or watched the film.
They leave their exercise books and notes in the classroom the day before the exam.
For these students, one exposure to the text is enough for meaningful and complex levels of understanding.
Admittedly, English is a problematic subject because it is so rich. Yet while the most highly motivated and driven students will attend revision sessions, complete practice papers and succeed, those students in the middle can be very ‘middling’ in their attitude towards revision.
They are the students who, with just a few small changes, could make huge strides in their progress, if only we could get them to revise.
What should students revise? How should they revise? These were the two questions we asked ourselves when addressing revision.
Having decided that practice and spaced practice were more important than copious notes, we produced a termly booklet of tasks that made the students practise a skill, or directed students to revise a particular aspect.
Its contents related to the forthcoming mock exams and consisted of the following:
The booklet was distributed towards the start of the term, and we didn’t give out any other homework. We explained to students that this booklet was designed to help build good habits in terms of revision and promote the strategy of ‘A little, often’.
On the front of each booklet was a grid, and for each task they completed they ticked off a square. We teachers tracked their work across the term and monitored their progress towards achieving the goal of completing all 50 tasks by the end of the term.
The tasks themselves were largely short activities that didn’t involve the student having to write lengthy pieces or marking on the part of teachers.
We were looking for evidence that the students had engaged with the tasks, rather than producing the swathes of copied-out notes and highlighting that are often a poor proxy of revision.
This approach transformed our approach to setting homework and monitoring engagement in the subject. It was particularly helpful for our weakest students, providing a supported, structured approach to revision that generated some excellent results.
We also changed the way we structured our curriculum.
Previously, in the run-up to the exams we would dedicate entire lessons to specific set texts or elements of the paper. We would break down the lesson schedule and produce a formula to cover what we felt was important:
‘Right, we have 10 lessons left – so that’s three lessons for Macbeth, four for A Christmas Carol and two for the language papers…’
We abandoned this approach completely, in favour of placing the emphasis on students from an early stage. Teachers are naturally kind, and in our kindness we’ll give students safety blankets.
It used to be that if they didn’t revise, they would have at least had these last few lessons to help plug the gaps.
From the start of Y10, we made it clear that there was to be no more plugging of gaps or quick solutions. All students were given a cheap copy of the texts. They were responsible for making annotations in their books and keeping them safe.
We opted to now focus on the importance of all lessons, since there wouldn’t be another lesson going over the same things again at a later date. If they didn’t take in the material during this lesson, they’d just have to do more work later.
Things also changed in Year 11. Lessons now start with regular questions on all the texts, which serve to highlight gaps and areas for the students to work on – ‘Tom, you need to work on Macbeth; Jasmine, you need to work on your poetry.’
We were working to highlight gaps and direct students towards what they should focus on.
Finally, after Christmas, when everything was covered, we changed the structure of lessons. Instead of going through all the literature texts and trying to pick out characters or scenes needing work, we covered all the texts in lessons.
We’d give students a sheet with quotations from A Christmas Carol, Romeo and Juliet, An Inspector Calls and William Blake’s ‘London’. We’d then look at a theme featured across all the texts, such as religion or class.
The lesson would focus on how the writers presented said theme, and their reasons for presenting certain things differently. Students were thus able to revise several texts and explore one theme within one lesson.
Simultaneously, they were making little connections and subtle points of understanding – something often lost when you spend a whole lesson looking at one character.
Do parents know what their children’s revision looks like? Schools throw the word ‘revision’ around with aplomb, but don’t spell out what revision should be and what it should look like to those people best placed to see it in action.
We therefore started regularly emailing parents about revision, beginning with a short email spelling out what students should be revising at that point and what they had been given to help them.
Later, I’d email parents telling them about the mock after the holiday, what it was on and where they could find some supporting resources.
This soon became a regular thing, and made sure that the same messages got home.
It also helped to ensure that some students weren’t pulling the wool over their parents’ eyes – I did have one student tell his mother that ‘revision homework was optional.’ Parents want to help their child, but we need to communicate what things should look like in practice.
Homework and revision are two external factors that are largely out of our control. Turning revision into a public relations event has really helped us and our students.
We are now much clearer about our expectations and what, for us, revision looks like.
Changing attitudes to revision means having a clear vision of revision. All too often, we leave things to chance.
Chris Curtis is an English teacher and author of the book How to Teach English, published by Crown House Publishing; for more information, follow @Xris32 or visit learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.com.
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