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Developing gifts and talents in English (part two).

In the last article I proposed the unremarkable view that the whole personal repertoire is relevant in English, not just the skills that turn a D into a temporary C. The view seems less unremarkable now that the political agenda is emphasising the measurable content of the curriculum, with facts being reinstated as more trustworthy than skills. It may be that English teachers have, once again, to re-assert what matters about our uniquely humane discipline against rival versions more to do with good manners, nice uniforms and the classroom relevance of John Dryden.

In that article I suggested using Jaques' 'Seven ages of man' speech from As You Like it as the model for some creative writing. Bearing in mind the need for tasks to suit the range of ability in a class, with some satisfaction and achievement in outcomes of different kinds, this task has the advantage of appealing to the visual, the autobiographical and the conceptual strengths of students.

1 Seven Ages

Here is a student doing a graphic representation of the way he has grown up through game stations. As the start for some discussion of growth processes and interest development, it provides a strong basis for personal talk and further writing, or it can be enough as it is, depending on the teacher's view of the student's potential.


This is a more verbally ambitious autobiographical development from the stimulus, showing not only a developed reflection on the writer's own history, but some engagement with matters more typical.


It's the development from the specifically autobiographical to the universal that raises the potential of this exercise--making it the means for comment on Life in the mode of an extended metaphor--both features helpful in writing and thinking about the links between the personal and the universal, and ways of saying much with little.

1 Birth, the beginning, the start of the race that is life with lanes, hurdles and competition ahead,

2 The toddler, the straight, the sprint to get ahead, break away from the crowd without thinking to face it out.

3 Childhood, the bend, feeling that others are further ahead when in reality they are behind.

4 The teenage years, the longer straight, a long battle of speed to stay ahead.

5 Adulthood, the next bend, again the belief others are ahead or behind when they are not and the fierce competition.

6 Old age, the final sprint, struggling to keep breath and keep up as the final line approaches.

7 Death, the finish line, the end of all the race and for some the lap will begin again, for others they will rest in the bliss of that lies after the finish, after winning, but others left in the hell of losing.


It's this potential for development from the autobiographical to the universal that makes this a useful exercise--and makes it well suited to the different outcomes that can be challenging and satisfying at various levels of ability.

2 Wordplay (graphic semantics)

This favours those with a strong visual intelligence and those who, lacking such visual skill, may see possibilities and opportunities in meanings that can be helpful in pairwork where students bring different strengths to collaborative work. The idea is to display the letters of a word in any way that is suggestive of the word's meaning. Start with nouns--especially the names of animals. Students can represent the word graphically in a way that is suggestive of the creature itself. They may be literally representational or symbolic--allowing those with better graphic ability to do well. The potential for differentiation and nudging performance upward is in moving from illustrating to interpreting--helped by moving students from working with objects to working with ideas. For example:

* Start with pictorial nouns, e.g. butterfly, rhino.

* Then move on to occupation, where physical representativeness gives way to attitudinal or behavioural characteristics, e.g. chemist, MP Students choosing these may represent various trades or professions in ways that are typical, satirical or attitudinal.

* Now move on to abstract nouns, e.g. nostalgia, sin. Students choosing these may represent abstract concepts graphically in ways that suggest cause, effect or context of these notions.

* And to adjectives, e.g. tall, angry, sleepy are good to start with.

3 Appreciating word choice

There is a tendency for students to see a text as something that was complete and finished from its start. They need to know that the print existence of a text follows some grappling and choosing, some shaping and shifting. In short, they need to get a grasp of the authorial craft invisibly behind or before a text. They need to be aware that writers have selected their final words for printing from a hoard of available alternatives. This will help them to see the merits of a writer's word choice by exploring the available word-stock from which the writer made an effective selective choice.

Give them a poem with some words missing. Get students to supply their own. These can be discussed for grammatical fit, semantic appropriacy or match to devices of simile, metaphor or sound. For example, Richard Kell's 'Fishing Harbour towards Evening':

-- clouds -- gold. Along the -- wharf The -- boats -- and --. Round the masts...

(NB Blanks rather than dashes or dots which indicate the number of letters can produce more varied results.)

All students' substitutions can be valid--but they will be more able to criticise and or appreciate the writer's choice of words when they are revealed. There will always be one who wants 'Fluffy' clouds 'shining' gold but this is a good starting point for exploring the author's intention and method in writing a poem ostensibly picturesque and actually shocking:

Slashed clouds leak gold. Along the slurping wharf The snugged boats creak and seesaw. Round the masts ...

Careful omission of words can include words which are part of the rhyming-scheme as well as key words expressing attitude and feeling. This engages students with aspects of form as well as meaning. For example:
 I wander through each -- street,
 Near where the -- Thames does --
 And mark in every face I meet,
 Marks of weakness, marks of --
 In every cry of every man,
 In every -- cry of fear,
 In every voice, in every --,
 The mind -- I hear:

 How the chimney-sweeper's cry
 Every blackening -- appals,
 And the hapless soldier's sigh
 Runs in blood down -- walls.
 But most, through midnight streets I hear
 How the -- harlot's curse
 Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
 And blights with plagues the marriage --.

4 One text in the style of anther writer: Romeo and Juliet by John Steinbeck

The two young men emerged from the darkness and came into the opening where the masked dancers gathered. The first man stopped short on the edge of the crowd and the other nearly ran into him. He adjusted his mask and looked again.

'What you doin' you crazy fool?' said his companion.

He stopped and followed Romeo's gaze.

'Ain't she purdy?' he said.

'Who you talking about?' said Mercutio.

'There' he said pointing, 'that one in the soft dress. And soft hair, like sausage curls.'

'Now don't you go getting involved again' said the companion. 'Remember what happened in Mantua.'

'Yeah, but she's so purdy, like a dove in a crowd of crows. I ain't never seen no beauty till this night.'

'The hell with doves and crows. Christ, Romeo, she's a Capulet. You touch her, somebodyd shoot you for a coyote right off. Don't you want to live off the fatta the lan?'

'I know, Mercutio, but she's so... She's like... teaching the candles to burn bright. Like all the others are jus' beans and she's beans and ketchup.'

'You crazy son-of-a-bitch! For God's sake don't dream so much. You'll get us in hot water again. I told you about doin' a bad thing.'

Romeo pulled his hat down a little more over his eyes, the way Mercutio's hat was.

'I ain't gonna say nothing. I ain't gonna say nothing.

But she's purdy... She's so purdy in that dress.' (Apologies to readers with a refined literary sensibility....)

5 One text in 50 words each, as told by two different characters (or 100):

It wasn't my fault. I only helped him to do what he wanted. It was all for him. And us. Duncan looked like my father, so I couldn't ... But he really wanted to be king, and the witches ... And now I can't sleep. He's not talking to me anymore. Blood...

Never known the like in twenty years Portering here. Comings, goings, whisperings, knockings at the gate all hours. Folk on about owls and wild horses, never mind the king dead, Herself Queening it, known thugs flashing gate-passes and Malcolm scarpering. You'd expect better from high-ups. Me, I need a drink.

Before its demise in 2006, the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth English team published a definition of the various gifts and talents that constitute high-level performance in English. In doing so, the team was attempting to include those largely cognitive and responsive elements defined most clearly in GCSE A* grade descriptors, but to go beyond these to more general aspects of what constitutes high ability within English as a cognitive, affective, social and communicative domain. The three broad categories embracing more specific skills owe more to a student's repertoire as a learner and doer than as a producer of specific items within the curriculum and assessment model of English as a certificated subject. It is, after all, the whole person that we deal with as English teachers, for good or ill, and it's the whole person who comes into our class, who operates within its artificial limits, and who walks out at the end. If English is to matter, it has to make a difference to the whole person who walks out at the end of the lesson: any LOs, WALTS, WILFS and other acronymic inventions are only a small part of that whole, though more measurable in a culture of Strategy and Inspection which has less interest in the forest because of an obsession with trees.

1 Responsiveness: natural and ready responses to a broad range of familiar and unfamiliar ideas /language/ situations.

1(i) Responding to familiar and unfamiliar texts in ways which demonstrate critical understanding and insight using conceptual frameworks and recognising contextual influences.

1(ii) Understanding of intended audiences, authorial purposes and the ways these may affect presentational choices

2 Communication: tentative and/or confident communication of ideas and responses to a broad range of ideas/ language/situations.

2(i) Ability to reach well supported and convincing judgements

2(ii) Prepared to sustain an independent point of view

2(iii) Where appropriate, can produce a precise, mature style of thought/speech/writing--or an independent style exploiting irregular or non-conformist thought/speech/writing.

2(iv) Respond in a variety of media in elegantly crafted, well constructed, economical, original, imaginative, rhetorical or playful ways

3a Referencing and interrogating: making connections: e.g. comparisons, contrasts and contextual sitings across a broad range of ideas/ texts/situations.

3b Probing, questioning and challenging the implications of a broad range of ideas/texts/ situations.

3(i) Adapt and synthesise what is understood from a wide variety of ideas/text/ situations in a variety of ways

3(ii) Adopt attitudes/ideas/perspectives not their own, showing ability to empathise with and manage different ideologies and value systems.

Prominent in the human skills and resources signposted above are the 'conceptual frameworks', recognising of 'contextual influences', the value of the 'tentative' and the empathy with 'different ideologies and value systems' not their own. These are all both part of and greater than 'English' as a subject, and a major part of the agenda for developing gifts and talents in the most able, and others, too.

What's encouraging is that many of the tasks in the AQA reading and writing Controlled Assessments can be built on the remodelling of texts as indicated in my examples and by the guidelines from NAGTY. For example:

This means there is a clear incentive to embed this kind of task into the curriculum from year 7, in the knowledge that it will be relevant to the requirements of the year 11 priorities. (Though what these may be in the light of Michael Gove's bright vision by the time year 7 is in year 11 is food for little joy or hope ...)

Additionally, there is reward in the band descriptors for the kind of creative activity suggested above, e.g. Writing Controlled Assessment descriptors:

Band 5

* Sophistication & subtlety prevail; distinct reasons for readers wanting to read this: 'delightful', 'flair', 'originality'

* Subject matter/ideas presented in completely measured & effectively judged depth/detail

* Artful & self-conscious use of language with consistent crafting for impact

* Impressive exploitation of form for purpose & audience with impressive sense of immersion in the chosen genre

What seems most important in stretching, challenging and motivating the most able also seems important in stretching, challenging and motivating all students: providing activities which engage their interest, develop their expertise and yield satisfying results at all levels, and in the same classroom. That is why I would like the term 'provision for the gifted and talented' to fade away. In its place, I prefer a more democratic, inclusive and diversely skills-based term such as 'promotion of gifts and talents'. That would help us re-affirm our own agenda for English as the subject that draws in and re-shapes all the attributes of human personality, for individuals and groups, for now and for adulthood.

Peter Thomas

A principal Moderator for AQA GCSE English Literature Author of The Complete Shakespearience, NATE 2010
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Title Annotation:Secondary
Author:Thomas, Peter
Publication:NATE Classroom
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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