In which I start to develop a Geographical Writing Toolkit

This blog post is the result of the convergence of several initially unrelated strands of thought. Firstly, one of the key findings of the most recent OFSTED Geography subject report was that: ‘A lack of opportunity for writing at length, especially in the secondary schools visited, limited the opportunities for students, particularly the most academically able, to show their understanding of geography.’[1] Secondly, there is my growing frustration at a number of students in my Key Stage 4 classes’ inability to develop higher-mark exam questions with any kind of clarity and precision. And finally, there is simple petty jealousy that our History department can use PeEL to structure most of the writing that students do in lessons, responding as it is to the evidence of historical sources; but, apart from data response questions, much of the higher-level geographical explanation and analysis (based on an understanding of key concepts and processes, and knowledge of specific case study details) doesn’t seem to fit into the PeEL framework.

 So I created my own.

 Actually, there is a fourth source of inspiration behind this blog post – Steve Backshall. It was while searching the internet to see if there were any existing resources on how to write a good geographical explanation that I happened across a series of four video clips on the BBC Learning Zone website [2] – clip numbers 8441, 8442, 8443 and 8444 – in which Backshall demonstrates how to write geographical descriptions, explanations, instructions and discussions (respectively). The clips themselves are pitched at a fairly low level, no higher than Key Stage 3, but they set me thinking: How far can we reduce the kinds of writing that geography students will have to master to these four categories?

 My initial hunch is that they represent a useful starting point but, just as one of the great strengths of Geography as a discipline is the variety of subject matter, so, too, do students need to be able to master a wider variety of different types of writing than most other subjects. To be sure, Geography students don’t need to be able to write at such length as in, say, English or History, but I struggle to think of another subject in which students have to be able to write in so many different ways. I suspect, also, that there are probably more than four types of geographical writing. These, as I said, are just initial hunches, though. My goal is to reduce the number of different types of geographical writing down to an essential core and – here’s the real point of this blog post – to produce a set of guidelines, a PeEL-style framework, for each type of writing, to help students structure their work.

 The first one that I created was the result of a year 7 homework on settlement (the ‘siting a settlement’ task from Waugh) in which students had to assess the natural advantages of different potential sites, and a year 10 exam that required students to explain the advantages and disadvantages of a named planning issue to specific groups of people (the WJEC B specification, in case you’re wondering – we teach the proposed Pennbury eco-town as a case study). Anyway, most year 7 students had identified advantages and disadvantages quite capably, and used these to reach an overall conclusion, but without developing their arguments to explain why these factors were dis/advantages; similarly, most year 10 students identified advantages and disadvantages but without linking these to specific stakeholders and explaining why these factors would be dis/advantageous to the group in question. Knowing that year 7 would be covering content that lent itself to this kind of approach, allowing us to build on their homework; and knowing that year 9 would soon be sitting the same exam as year 10 (we’re phasing in a 3-year Key Stage 4), and wanting to give year 10 chance to act on exam feedback by rewriting and improving their case study questions, I created this:

Image

 As I said, the idea is that students, when presented with a geographical question, will start to recognise them as questions of a certain type and, as a result, will be able to take a more independent role in planning, drafting and redrafting their answers. Accordingly, one of the text boxes gives a general sense of the scenarios in which this type of answer would be appropriate, while another gives some example question stems as further guidance as to when this kind of answer would work. The most useful section is the ‘How to structure your paragraph’ box, providing as it does a framework for students’ writing and giving sentence openers that will allow them to identify a group that is for/against a particular issue, explain why that group holds this view, then developing the argument to explain the knock-on effects, to the group in question, of either going ahead with the changes of proposals or issue at hand. The connectives are taken directly from one of the aforementioned BBC Learning Zone video clips[3]; the model paragraph is a more detailed version of one that Steve Backshall gives in the video, allowing the illustration of what is meant by developing your explanation.

 So does it work?

 I should begin by saying that I don’t have any Hattie-style effect sizes by which to judge the efficacy of this resource. All I have is the informal oral feedback given to me by two year 7 classes and one year 9 class that have used this resource. The response was mixed. Positive feedback focused on the sentence openers and model paragraph, which students found useful for organising their own writing, and the connectives for encouraging them to expand the range of their written vocabulary. Negative feedback was largely focused on the fact that, having modelled an example on the board, the sheet seemed rather superfluous (though, as I explained, the intention is that, with greater familiarity, the sheet will come to replace my need to work through model answers with students).One student also said that they didn’t use the sheet because they didn’t want their sentence openers to be the same as everyone else’s!

 As for my perception – and I stress my use of the word ‘perception’ – I think this resource certainly warrants further experiment. My abiding memory of these initial trials is of a year 7 student with low literacy from a local traveller community who’s just come back to school after being banned from the school buses for two months for fighting, who used the template to come up with something like the following paragraph (I’m paraphrasing – the student in question verbalised it much more clearly than he wrote it down): ‘One person who thinks the changes are good is the builder. He thinks this because building the new houses has brought him extra work. This means that he can take photos of these new houses and post them on his website, and use this to get himself even more work in other places.’

 Next time these classes do a piece of discursive geographical writing, we’ll use think-pair-share to talk through an example but I won’t model an answer on the board. As for future versions of this resource, the next ones on my agenda are for describing graphs and writing an explanation of a geographical process. Watch this space…

 Notes

[1] OFSTED (2011) ‘Geography: Learning to make a World of Difference’ (www.ofsted.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/surveys-and-good-practice/g/Geography%20-%20Learning%20to%20make%20a%20world%20of%20difference_0.pdf) p.6 (site accessed: 9 February)

 [2] BBC (2013) ‘BBC Learning Zone’, www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips (site accessed: 9 February)

 [3] BBC (2013) ‘Discussion – for and against’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/discussion-for-and-against/8444.html (site accessed: 9 February)

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About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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2 Responses to In which I start to develop a Geographical Writing Toolkit

  1. Pingback: In which I reflect on day one of the Improving Teacher Programme | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

  2. Pingback: In which I seek feedback on my Geography PeEL Pyramids | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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