From an exploding folder to a single resource: improving GCSE English resit students’ engagement with unseen texts

Greater Brighton Metropolitan College

This project produced a ‘Term 1 Reading Booklet’ for GCSE English Language resit students studying across several campuses at our college. It contained a selection of extracts from a single fiction text, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. These were interleaved with thematically connected non-fiction texts taken from the 19th and 21st century, with coloured-paper and online versions available to increase its accessibility.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway [LINK].

Summary

The reading booklet represented a change from our previous approach, very commonly adopted in schools and colleges, where students are given a variety of unseen extracts and worksheets as individual handouts that accumulate in their folders over the year. However, it also built on our existing practice by incorporating content and formats we had found previously effective.

Staff and students who used the reading booklet were invited to feed back on it at various points in the first term. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, and this increased our confidence to proceed with creating a follow-up booklet for the second term, informed by suggestions from staff and students on how further to improve it.

Rationale

Staff expressed frustration that individual handouts, used hitherto for the GCSE English resit course, typically ended up stuffed into ‘exploding folders’ that were eventually binned rather than used for revision. This suggested that our students did not feel a strong sense of ownership over their work. They also reported feeling overwhelmed with paper.

The hope was that by replacing them with a single reading booklet, where materials could be refined and then presented cohesively and coherently, students would feel more on top of materials, and increasingly motivated to keep, and revise from, completed work.

A further positive by-product of using a single resource for teachers was also envisioned: less time spent photocopying ‘new’ materials each week, or trying to find them from previous weeks, and more time freed up to plan lesson delivery.

The presentation of materials for the reading booklet was informed by relevant educational research, particularly the work of Doug Lemov et al (2016) that shows how breaking longer extracts into ‘bite-sized’ chunks with questions that encourage close scrutiny of them, and require only short bursts of writing, can help build learner confidence and stamina, particularly important for the first stage of the resit course.
The booklet was laid out with clear headings indicating the focus of the particular section, and the part of the exam it related to. Then, typically, a table of ‘useful words and phrases’ with definitions would be given that related to that focus. An extract laid out in a similar way to an unseen exam text would be given, and for certain extracts the text would then be broken into chunks chronologically.

Individual questions might be tied to these shorter extracts with space to write directly underneath. Sentence starters might be offered, and prompts given to encourage effective approaches for writing in the exam. Extension tasks were also included to encourage broader thinking about the text and to stretch students who worked more quickly.

A total of six extracts were chosen from the beginning, middle and ending of The Woman in Black, and presented chronologically. Extracts that showcased particular structural or linguistic features were selected: for example, the opening of Chapter 2, where London fog is dramatically personified. Time was reserved, usually about 15 minutes, to then read the whole chapter from the book at the end of the lesson.

The twelve chapters were read over the first term, and longer chapters were read across the two weekly lessons. The hope was that this would provide a more immersive reading experience for students, in turn contributing to their overall engagement with the lessons.

In order to avoid narrowing the focus too much by exclusively concentrating on one fiction text we interleaved The Woman in Black extracts with thematically connected non-fiction extracts. For example, the previously mentioned extract about London fog was followed by two non-fiction texts: one Victorian extract which described a scene in London when there was dense fog, and another text, written within the last decade, focusing on the issue of air pollution in London. Two other non-fiction extracts relating to the topic of ghosts were included later on in the booklet, once the supernatural theme of the novel had been more fully established.

At the back of the booklet we included two feedback sheets relating to the reading assessments done just before and just after using the booklet. This meant that progress could be tracked and connected to the relevant work that had been completed in the interim between assessment points.

Approach

We worked collaboratively to agree the content of the booklet, and then one teacher was responsible for finalising the resource. Booklets were distributed to teams working across two campuses on four different sites before the start of term, and typically used for about a quarter of overall lesson delivery.
Across the term teachers were encouraged to share feedback and ideas of how they were using the booklet via a Padlet page. Their feedback was then taken and recorded more fully mid-term and at the end of term in a departmental meeting.

Students’ views on the booklet were also gathered prior to half-term across classes via a lesson activity that elicited responses about how they felt ‘overall’ about the Reading Booklet, what they identified as positives, and what they felt were negatives. These thoughts were captured on post-its and were then analysed by the project lead who identified key themes emerging from the responses.

Late in term 1, just after the booklet had been completed, students from several classes were invited to give more detailed responses in relation to the key general themes identified through the earlier feedback. Their ideas were captured on paper-tablecloths and the activity was facilitated by GCSE English teachers from other classes, to encourage more forthcoming responses.

Two students were identified as case studies and interviewed in depth at the end of term 1 about their individual experiences of using the booklet. One student was new to college, and the other was a returning learner, who was taking the resit for a third time with us. Examples and extracts of the work the two students produced were also taken as ‘souvenirs’ of how the booklets had been used.

Ideas generated through this range of feedback activities then informed planning of the booklet for term 2, included more space for teacher comments and feedback, more exam practice questions and writing frames, and the use of shaded pages to signal more clearly to students whether pages related to Paper 1 or Paper 2 of their GCSE exam.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Teachers have consistently reported that having the booklet as a ‘go to’ resource has been extremely helpful in terms of organisational efficiency, tracking learner progress and providing students with a much more coherent revision resource than the individual worksheets it replaced. This has been corroborated by students: ‘having everything in one place’, clear layout, the ability to ‘see’ progress and review work done, or know what work had been missed, were frequently cited as key benefits of the resource.

We built activities into the lesson early on to elicit learner feedback on the reading booklet. Opening up a conversation with students at this stage provided a chance for them to influence decisions made about content and materials for the following term. Consequently, we remodelled the reading booklet to reflect their suggestions, visibly demonstrating that their views and comments are valued and have an immediate impact.

We also widened the focus of our second booklet to include extracts from a range of fiction texts, to more closely mirror the exam scenario as the end-point assessment loomed closer. These extracts were chosen from short stories that we also planned to read in their entirety within lessons, to maintain our focus on providing extended reading opportunities to build stamina and deeper engagement.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The reading booklet has freed up time in the first term for teachers to focus on the delivery of lessons because they are no longer gathering texts and creating worksheets week-to-week. Because students have had a single resource ‘carried with them’, anecdotal evidence suggests it has increased the sense of coherence and continuity for those who have moved classes or had various cover teachers across the term.

In terms of accessibility, there have been some clear benefits of using the reading booklet. Online versions, and coloured copies, have ensured students have had the key reading material for the term in an accessible format that can be reviewed before and after lessons. Additional Learning Support staff, working with students outside of class, have also reported that this has been of benefit, and our Learning Support department have created a new ‘ClaroRead friendly’ version of the booklet to further improve its accessibility.

An online version of the reading booklet is due to be shared on the Excellence Gateway, and it is hoped in the future that this will stimulate further conversations and collaborations with teaching staff across the sector who may adapt and/or pilot the materials in other contexts.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Students have spent time working from the booklet in one of their two GCSE English lessons each week, providing a consistent focal point that many students have said has helped them feel more ‘in control’ of their learning for the reading element of the course.

Only 7% of 130 students studying on the 16-19 programme surveyed in the first term reported a negative response to the reading booklet. The other 93% said that overall, it had either helped them feel more organised (37%), or helped with learning (32%), been interesting and enjoyable to use (15%), or simply been ‘alright’ (9%). Given the low motivation levels that can characterise learners in this context, this positive reaction has been pleasing.

More detailed discussion in the focus groups at the end of term revealed that often students who had criticisms of the booklet were mainly critical of the content of the booklet, rather than the use of it to replace individual handouts. Some said they found only analysing fiction extracts from the same text being read in class (The Woman in Black) constraining, for example, but they felt overall that the booklet format was helpful.

Both of the students interviewed in more depth reported that having texts, questions, space for answers, terms, definitions and sentence starters ‘all in one place’ was less overwhelming and had helped improve their motivation to revise at home.

They also both described how the breaking down of exam-style questions into more manageable chunks had improved their confidence in terms of reading analysis skills. Learner A demonstrated much fuller, more detailed responses towards the later pages in her booklet in contrast to earlier pages, which had gaps and shorter answers. Her annotations on the text were purposeful by the end, whereas at the start she had doodled on certain extracts.

Assessment

The end of term assessment for Learner A also reflected her increased confidence. She related how she had felt able to write far more in her writing assessment than she ever had before in an English exam or assessment. Her response to the language question, which was one the first booklet had focused on in particular, was a well-developed answer that contained some detailed analysis.

Learner B’s initial assessment (which Learner A did not complete) was not developed, in contrast to the writing she produced when she started working from the booklet.

She later spoke about how she felt “daunted” by a “blank page” when faced with exam questions, and how the layout of the booklet, where it was “broken down” helped her to understand how to approach exam-style questions with more confidence.

Learner B took the GCSE exam for the fourth time in November 2019, and she achieved a Grade 5. Before she got her result, she spoke about how having something tangible to ‘own’ and revise from was beneficial in preparing for the exam, and also how the scaffolded approach of chunking the texts had helped her understand how to approach more in-depth reading analysis that had increased her confidence prior to the exam.

Learner B’s feedback and result challenge a perception from some teachers that the booklet activities might not suitably prepare students for the exam and might not be stretching more able learners. However, the experiences of both these learners do back up feedback from some teachers who have reported that this scaffolded approach has been beneficial for learners who have low confidence, rather than low ability.

Learning from this project

Having analysed our data we have come to the following conclusions:

  • When we were devising and piloting the booklet, there was an unusually high level of staff absence or changeover. This constrained opportunities to collaborate over materials for inclusion in the booklet and to share how it was being used. In the future, we would want to have more collaborative planning meetings, peer observations, and regular contact between staff focused on sharing experiences of using such a resource. We hope this will increase a sense of shared responsibility and endeavour for improving and refining the resource.
  • However, the staff absences also highlighted that a potential benefit of such a resource is to provide a useful ‘backbone’ to lessons being covered by staff with little time to plan or gather their own materials.
  • We have already had discussions as a team about how a booklet for the writing focus of the exam could be beneficial. We think there is scope for developing such a booklet that could include useful resources for this element of the course such as terms, definitions, frames, questions and marking codes.
  • Teachers have reported that the pre-defined format of the reading booklet can be constraining, and the tricky question of how to balance respect for teacher autonomy and a need to differentiate resources for different contexts with the benefits of this resource, highlighted in this report, requires further interrogation beyond the life of this project. Perhaps in future smaller ‘cells’, teachers could devise their own versions of a booklet to increase a sense of ownership of the materials for all staff.

It was also a challenge to elicit feedback from staff working on geographically remote campuses and, although a Padlet page was set up, it was underutilised. It is likely that increasing a sense of ‘ownership’ over materials used in the booklet for all staff using it would further encourage ‘buy in’ to activities focused on sharing and reflection.