Monday, 27 October 2014

PE+ Part One: Down with PEEAL!

"The most important thing I've learnt in English this year is PEEAL."
Year 7 Student

The Most Important Thing
It was the end of NQT year and I felt like I wasn't the only one who needed to reflect the year's achievements.  My Year 7 class had made a massive journey: bridging the gap between primary and secondary; learning to give a speech in front of the class; learning research skills; exploring how language is used effectively by other writers and in our own writing.  However, when I asked them each to fill out a postit to say 'the most important thing' they'd learnt in English, the majority of my students referenced PEEAL paragraphs.  For those who aren't aware, this is a variation on the popular PEE format that adds dedicated space for analysis and links.  In my school, we also use mats to help students use this structure; these give helpful sentence starters as well as a brief description of what each part of the paragraph should contain.

PEEAL and the mats we used were invaluable to me last year. It gave the students a structure to remember what to include when analysing texts, as well as ensuring that they fulfilled certain AFs in their work.  Yet the problem with structures such as this (which has been rightly pointed out by exam boards) is that they are too formulaic and restricts students from developing original analyses.  I also found that students' depth of analysis was stunted, as they would usually write one sentence for each part of the paragraph before moving onto their next point.

This point was also highlighted by our Director of English and Head of English, who highlighted the concern when they delivered training on the new KS3 curriculum last July.  Instead they proposed that we start to use less formulaic approaches for most students, the main suggestion being the idea from a recent SLDM.  This approach had the 'Point' and 'Evidence' in the centre (as they should still lead the analytical paragraph), surrounded by possible areas to develop further: word, analysis, context, impact, audience and purpose.

Creating Resources
To me, the idea seemed vague.  I realised that freedom was needed to get students to explore more original responses, but I also appreciated that students would need support in using the new concept.  To support the teaching of it, @ACCooke5 and I sat down to create a new, anti-PEEAL mat for students to use as an aid.  We agreed that the sentence starter ideas from the PEEAL mats were useful, but we also felt that students could get better responses if they were given questions to explore in each section.  This was the final product:

Teaching PE+
One of @ACCooke5 's students coined the term PE+ as the name for our new paragraph structure, which I taught in a similar way to PEEAL: through modelling.

In the first few lessons of using the new concept, I would model my own PE+ paragraph on the board, using the laminated mat and getting students to help me with answers to the questions for each section.  This allowed us to talk about how I could structure my paragraph in different ways, before we then labelled each segment to show what we had included from the mat.

When introducing the new concept, students were generally elated to be using something new that wasn't as restrictive as PEEAL.  They were told that they needed to include their point and evidence (as always) but after this, they could pick whichever areas were relevant to develop in the rest of their paragraph.  I also stated that the length of each section could vary (depending on how much there was to be said).  Additionally, for those students who still needed a structure to 'complete', I would ask for certain areas to be filled in (as befitting the AFs we were covering in that lesson).  Fairly rapidly, I noticed that students' explanations were more developed and that they were choosing how to structure their paragraph so that each idea followed on from the last.  For example, they might explore the use of devices (analysis) and their effect on the reader (audience) before going on to discuss key words (word) and then going back to the effect on the reader (audience).

Nonetheless, there were still some students who stated that they felt more confident with the PEEAL format; they had the chance to access the PEEAL mats they were used to and completed their work using this structure.  The way I see it, this was them choosing a method of support that worked better for them and this was important to them generating their responses.

Structuring an Essay and Linking Points
I was keen to use this structure with my Year 10 class the start of September, as they started to prepare for the four hour GCSE Literature controlled assessment (comparing poetry with 'Romeo and Juliet').  However, if I were to do this it would be crucial to ensure that they were making links between the poems and the play: something previously facilitated by the 'link' in PEEAL.
To help with this, I drew something from the ideas I have come across whilst exploring SOLO taxonomy: hexagons.  However, rather than linking individual ideas (one idea on each hexagon), I thought the PE+ model would convert perfectly into a hexagon shape.  Therefore, the plan for each paragraph could be created on this template:

Throughout our lessons, we would fill the boxes in the hexagon with ideas, before then writing up into individual paragraphs.

The next step was to get students making links and using these to create a flowing argument across their paragraphs.  For this, I introduced Janus-Faced sentences (which I discovered through John Tomsett's presentation at a Teachmeet last summer).  We started by completing the relevant sections of two hexagons before then finding a way to link two of the sides.  Students would then create a Janus-Faced sentence to link the two paragraphs together, which they used in their actual paragraphs.

This meant that their final plans would be a tessellation of hexagons (their homework this half term is to work on this essay plan before we start writing in the first week back).

Moreover, I have used the same idea with a Year 7 class to create a whole class essay plan based around T.S. Eliot's 'Macavity the Mystery Cat'.  Below you can see how each student filled out an individual hexagon before they linked together their ideas to create their essay plan.

If they were then to write this (which is the next step for my Year 10 class), they could simply plot a path through the hexagons, using the links to create a structure that flows and ignoring any points that go off on a tangent from the main concept.

An Ongoing Project
Obviously, this is a concept that is still being developed both my myself, @ACCooke5 and our colleagues who are now using the PE+ mat and hexagons in their own lessons.  Yet, so far, they've been successful: though the use of modelling has been key to this success.

Bearing this is mind: I'd like to make an invitation for feedback.  If you have any ideas on how to improve this, I'd be really grateful.  It might even be that you already use a similar idea and have been implementing it in a different way.  Any ideas are welcome (just tweet me at @BorisMcDonald).

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Going SOLO: My first year using the taxonomy

This is an overview of what I've done with SOLO taxonomy over the last year.  If you'd like a beginner's guide to using SOLO, I'd recommend one of the following sites:
Pam Hooke:
Andy Day's blogs on SOLO: 

"Unless you’re willing to have a go, fail miserably, and have another go, success won’t happen." Phillip Adams

SOLO-ing it out
I first came across SOLO taxonomy during my PGCE at the University of York: one of our sessions was led by a teacher at Fulford School (Jill Lavender, @JillLavs). Jill spent a morning going through the basics of SOLO taxonomy and we started to apply some of the ideas to lessons in our subject area. However, I was still a bit sceptical about how much difference it would actually make.  This, coupled with the myriad of pressures during PGCE year, led to SOLO being shelved at the back of my mind.

That being said, something about the idea stuck.  At the end of my PGCE, I was lucky enough to go and observe SOLO in action at Fulford.  This gave a little more clarity as to how it helped students to reflect on their own progress and, independently, identify the steps needed for progression.  Though this is not what drew me to SOLO.  Instead, it was the lack of levels and numbers; students did not feel limited by their NC targets and I though this was vital, especially as my NQT year would involve me teaching mixed ability classes across KS3 and KS4.

Failing Miserably
Early on in my NQT year, I decided to try using SOLO with my year 10 class.  It did not go well.

Students seemed confused by the objectives that I had attached to each SOLO level and most of the class did not understand how this was an improvement on the usual criteria they were given as learning outcomes (these were linked to the differences between GCSE bands).  I made the decision, after one lesson, to abandon SOLO for the time being.

Another Go
A few months later, I returned to the idea: this time to use with a year 8 class across a unit of work.  This time my motivation was slightly different; rather than using SOLO to get students to set their own objectives, I wanted them to use it as a method of recording progress (both across a lesson and across a unit of work).

Embedding this from the start of a unit of work was crucial.  I started by briefly explaining SOLO to the class, saying that it was a way of them recording their understanding of a topic and drawing attention to the fact that it didn't link to NC levels: I was keen to stress that a low NC target should not affect a student's ability to reach the 'extended abstract' stage.

Following this, I went back to SOLO in each lesson. We'd start by looking at the key question and students would assess which SOLO level they were at, drawing the symbol in their margin and writing a sentence to explain/prove their level of understanding.

This was especially useful in highlighting progress that they had made through flipped home-works, as students would use their knowledge from this to verify that they had already reached the multistructural or unistructural stages.

We would then refer back to the criteria throughout the lesson, and students would update the SOLO symbol in their margin (to demonstrate exactly where in the lesson they had progressed to the next level).

Having students reflect on their progress also made it easy to differentiate for the levels of understanding when doing independent tasks, as they could use their level as a basis for which activity they would choose.

The next step was to use SOLO across several lessons. In order to do this, I divided up a larger subject (writing to entertain) into separate skills.  Students then used the grid to chart their understanding of the different topics across the unit, along with the help of some bookmarks that defined each SOLO stage.

Success: Hexagons and Beyond
Now that I had worked with SOLO to assess student progress, I wanted to focus on making links through the use of hexagons.  Again, with the same class, I used the hexagons template on Pam Hooke's website ( to get them to link ideas about characters, themes and language analysis whilst studying a novel. Another fantastic success was had: students were making links that they had struggled with before and using the SOLO terminology to confidently explain their progress to myself and to observers who has popped in to see what I'd been doing.

My Progress
Now, in my second year of teaching, I've trained the rest of my department in how to use SOLO and I'm using it myself in lessons across KS3 and KS4.  My colleagues who have been working with it since September are happy with the outcomes of using it and have been able to share their own uses for SOLO-based activities, such as ACCooke5 's use of hexagons (below).

I've concluded that for that crucial success, it needs to be embedded into a series of lessons; an isolated 'go' just won't deliver the results that SOLO is so popular for.