7 November 2021

On Scaffolded Descriptive Writing for GCSE English Language 9-1

Paper 1 Question 5 in the AQA GCSE English Language exam is worth 40 marks.  Put that in to a percentage and it’s worth 25% of the qualification.  So it’s vital that learners do well on this question.

Here, grandmother, suck on this egg… 

There is a however, of course (isn't there always?).  The however in this particular instance is that it is often quite difficult to give students a feeling of almost immediate success when approaching this question - this is a long-haul situation. The faint-hearted can give up almost before they begin. Not only that, a number of students have developed some very fixed ideas about what makes a descriptive text - I teach in FE - and quite often it bears only a passing resemblance to what examiners are looking for (at least in order to award it good marks!).

So I wanted to do something to address this. I did a little research (OK, I used a search engine) and found that some teachers were giving their students scaffolded writing tasks, at least for the first paragraph of a descriptive piece.  Here is an excellent article (the best I found, to be honest) on The Learning Profession blog about how scaffolded descriptive writing openings can work brilliantly.  The rest of this post details my journey from this point - it isn't advice about how to teach this part of the syllabus, it's simply about how I developed my ideas about scaffolding and how I then went on to embed it in my classes.

I was moved by this article mentioned above to produce some of my own (there is an example above), created as picture challenges for my students.  You can find them on my TES shop here.  As a small ‘bitesize’ portion of a class they worked really well but what I discovered was that students wished to continue the piece rather than leave it as a ‘standalone’ exercise.

They were quite correct; we should finish what we start. I hadn’t factored that in but I didn’t want to spoon feed my students either. In truth, I was a little wary of the word scaffold because of course when one is taken away whole buildings have been known to collapse.  Metaphor aside, the results of the first paragraph picture challenge exercises showed me how well scaffolding can work in the introductory stages of creative writing.  And as my students were adamantly not going to finish what they started for homework I had to come up with a way to incorporate scaffolding more in to my delivery in the classroom. It was working for the students and if it works for them then it works for me.  My reservations about spoon feeding had to be put to one side, at least temporarily.

The cunning plan forms...
However badly it reflects on me, I am obliged to admit that many of my students pay just a little desultory lip-service to planning texts in a classroom or exam situation; others ignore the need to plan at all –  a few seemingly at all costs.   This despite the rather blue hue of my face.

As such, structural devices are often thrown in willy-nilly, there is little variety of punctuation or sentence structure and as for language features I often have to look really hard for them (“but that’s what we have to do in question 2, sir,” one of them pointed out to me).  You can just imagine the “Paddington Bear stare” he received for that quip...

So, for me the next logical step - to do something very similar to the scaffolded first paragraph exercises but for a whole text – presented me with a burgeoning cunning plan (not à la Baldrick, I can only hope but you can judge that for yourself).

If I could get my students writing whole texts using a scaffold, could I then get them to create their own scaffolds?  Once they were comfortable with this, could I then do a ‘reveal’?  After all, if they can scaffold their own pieces before they write them, what essentially is the difference between a scaffold and a plan? Ta da. Cunning plan in place.

Was this pulling the wool over their eyes a little? Maybe but I hoped that when the penny dropped (if it hadn’t already) and they realised that what they had just created was a plan (a rose by any other name...), they might start paying the process of planning the attention it deserves.  To paraphrase Machiavelli, "Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception."  Or, if you can’t sell something one way, re-brand it and try again.

The plan commences...
I couldn’t find anything for a complete text on the internet that was specific to this qualification, this question.  So, I created my own.  They took quite a while to create but I think they were worth it and my own student ‘guinea pigs’ responded to them enthusiastically, even some of the most reluctant of professional writers.

The first was created as an introductory exercise to writing a complete text using scaffolding.  The idea was also that each paragraph of the text would include some of the skills descriptors examiners use to mark descriptive writing for the GCSE English Language 9-1.  This is set to the left of the page with a space for the student to respond to the suggestions on the right hand side.  I also included a cheat sheet so those students who needed could better get to grips with some of the instructions. You can see how I laid it out in the image above.  It is available here – and is editable so you can chop and change a few things if you wish.

The results were good (mouth on floor good from some students) but got even better the second and third time around.  For those responses, I used the same picture for each resource (but I flipped the picture horizontally on the second). The scaffolding of the first directed the students to write a positive, happy piece; that of the second suggested a much bleaker description.

To my delight using the same image for both tasks created a lot of discussion about how writers use time and place, colours and sights and sounds to create an atmosphere.  #Yay, as it were.  You can find those here with exemplars.

Students didn't really want to share work too much with others as they lack the confidence (they were all re-sits or ESOL first-timers, the usual Further Education mix with around 30 college weeks to get ready for those dates in June).  So, the exemplars worked well as a WAGOLL (what a good one looks like).

Rinse and repeat.

When scaffolds became plans...
The next stage was to wean my students off scaffolding provided by me and for them to do it themselves.  I created a new resource which provided them with just a picture and boxes to fill in.  I also gave them a sheet of things I would expect to see in their finished work (I also let them use the previous examples they had done as a guide).

There was the additional opportunity to discuss their scaffolds in small groups before they attempted them. This led to some lively debate but gave me one of those warm, mushy feelings inside; seeing all my students bar none actually talking about what elements would make a good descriptive text in a very constructive way was just great.

They seemed to enjoy taking control of the scaffold and the texts they wrote were, again, better than those they usually produced.

I continued with this ‘experiment’ and gradually weaned them off any pre-prepared resources.  In other words, I gave them just a picture with lines below it – just like they would get in the exam.  Over a period of weeks I slowly but surely replaced the word scaffold with the word plan.  Most of my students continued to use the scaffolding method in their plans - in one shape or form.  You can access the three most successful of the self-scaffolding exercises here.

I never did do the ‘reveal’ that the scaffolds they were creating were, in fact, plans.

Judgement Day
My results this year were markedly better than the previous year.  In fact I got more grade 5s than 4s - plus a very welcome sugar-frosting of 6s to make my results day cake quite pleasant to the taste.  I can't - of course - say for sure that any of the above had anything to do with the results but I like to think it did.  I do know I am doing it again this year, for certain sure and - as it worked so well for me and my students - hoping to share it a little too.