Competences through AfL

3 June 2009
English Online
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It’s only when pupils put flair into their writing that they become competent

When I first saw the word ‘competence’ stuck into the new English National Curriculum last summer, my heart descended into the abyss. Oh no, I thought, here we go again; yet more injunctions to give lots of boring grammar lessons which the pupils don’t understand. However, a closer examination of the rubric makes me think the new NC is a bit more enlightened than that.

As I have been re-devising schemes of work to meet these ‘competences’, I have found the best way of addressing them is through rejigging our redrafting and Assessment for Learning (AfL) policies. All the research and my own experience has made me realise that it is only by asking pupils to improve their own work, to edit it, to proofread it properly, that they learn about the key competences: the conventions of written language, adapting texts for different contexts, formality and informality. This is best taught through AfL activities.

Let me illustrate this with some small examples. At the beginning of my recent lessons, I have been giving pupils small ‘unpunctuated’ or deliberately ‘ungrammatical’ passages from the text they will study in the lesson and have asked them to punctuate it; the passage is photocopied so they don’t waste time copying it. It is an excellent way of dealing with rowdy classes – I hand them the exercise the moment they enter the room. It’s not exactly food for the soul, but I always follow it up by asking them to look at the original text and mark each other’s work, while thinking about the effect of the punctuation. Crucially and more spiritually, I try to make pupils see that punctuation is there to create a sense of rhythm, to draw attention to key words, to organise thought and description on the page. The same exercise works well on the interactive whiteboard; you simply ask selected pupils to come up and punctuate the relevant passage and turn the whole thing into a game show.

AfL is great here. I photocopy my extracts of pupils’ work, highlighting when they have used language successfully, and we discuss, as a class and in small groups, what makes successful writing. Above all, what I am looking for in pupils’ writing is ‘flair’; I snatch at even tiny sentences or clauses that show imagination and originality and show them to the whole class. We will then have a discussion about the effective deployment of a particular language feature. I then insist that all pupils have a go writing a sentence using that particular feature on a whiteboard tablet. They hold up their whiteboard above their head and I can see who’s learnt the technique and who hasn’t — and adapt my lesson accordingly. I was observed doing this simple exercise and attained a ‘1’ (or outstanding!) for the lesson because of it.

There is an irony that it is only when you stress pupils use language with ‘flair’ that they begin to use it competently. There is something rather leaden about the phrase ‘competence’; language needs to be lively, bouncy, entrancing if it is going to be truly effective.

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