Karen Holme asks what can the English Department learn from the visual approach to accessing source materials in History, to enable more effective teaching of the 19th century non-fiction unit in the new English GCSE?
The new GCSE syllabus in English will require the students to examine and analyse source materials from the 19th century which are non-fiction. This can be very daunting for the students as both the structure and language of the sources will be challenging and also the subject of the sources may be unfamiliar. I noticed that the History department approaches source material in quite a systematic and visual way and establishes understanding prior to analysis, using assimilation and inference. I wanted to establish if a more visual approach could be beneficial for students studying non-fiction text in their English GCSE.
“A major aspect of these changes is the development of critical thinking, seen as a transferable skill: the ability to process information and make reasonable judgments.”
“History education is inspired by the concept of multiperspectivity. It may be defined as a way of thinking, of selecting, of examining and using evidence from different sources in order to unravel the complexities of a situation and work out what happened and why.”
“There is a question of becoming familiar with a method and then applying it comfortably in different situations. This is what transferable acquisitions are all about.”
From the reading I completed it was clear that the methods and approaches which were taken in History might be transferrable to the study of 19th century non-fiction in English. As I have also during this academic year taught in both departments, I was uniquely placed to see the benefits of the different approaches and how they could be mutually beneficial to progress the learning of the students.
I decided to look at how students in the History lessons responded to the visual grids and the prompts when examining their source material. I observed how they engaged with it and how well they grasped the learning objective. I then found some examples of 19th century sources of non-fiction and made grids/charts to go with them, for students to complete in English lessons. The grids focused upon key questions which were in line with the new GCSE syllabus, to illicit understanding prior to analysis. My Y9 class were used for this research. I would then question my Y9 to see if they felt this more visual approach was a useful method and whether it was helpful to them when analysing a text in English.
Impact on Learning (Findings)
In the Y9 English lessons I observed that the students were quickly on task, treating it as an investigation and therefore a challenge. The limited space on the grids made it appear achievable and the organisation of it led to a clear understanding. The boys were immediately engaged by the challenge and progress was made by all abilities. The students could quickly see the main points within the source and information which could be easily missed in a search for more complex issues was found quickly, enabling the students to put the source into context before they began a closer study. The students had a way of seeing a route through their findings which would lead to a logical method of constructing either an essay or responding to smaller focused questions. When questioned, the students found the grids useful and they liked the boxes and clear prompts although they felt the space was too small to write all they wanted to say, for example to write a key quote, which is so crucial in English. Some students felt the boxes should be numbered to aid their route through the text if they were writing an essay style answer.
Although the students would not be allowed these visual prompts within an examination, the method showed that a systematic approach to breaking down a text did aid understanding and gave confidence. If students became familiar with the way in which the contexts of a source could be understood then their approach towards the language analysis and the interpretation of characters and events could become more sophisticated and well informed. The confidence of students responding to these texts should also increase.
Next Steps – Moving practice forward as a result of research
The next steps would be to refine the grids, taking account of student feedback and then see if a group which had been taught by this more visual method could perform better in their non-fiction analysis than a group which had not. This should be done with two parallel sets. I would also like to refine this approach in consultation with the English department and by looking closely at the new GCSE English syllabus as it consolidates the approach it is going to take in questioning students upon 19th century sources in the future.