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We’ve teamed up with teacher and podcaster Craig Barton to create a podcast series which lifts the lid on how exams are developed.
Find out how exam questions are created, discover what happens behind the scenes at AQA, and get to the heart of the latest issues as teachers bring us their stories and experiences, direct from the classroom.
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Talking my language
Published: 1 May 2019
Could you make a GCSE exam question simpler for students, without losing any of its meaning?
In this episode, Craig is joined by AQA’s Assessment Design Manager, Georgina Holmes who explains why the words used in exam questions are so important.
Next, we drop in on teacher, Kate Brewer to discover some of the techniques she employs in the classroom to help students with English as an additional language.
Featured in this podcast
Craig Barton – Maths teacher, podcaster and author
Georgina Holmes – AQA Assessment Design Manager
Kate Brewer – Head of Maths at William Perkin Church of England High School
- Watch our YouTube video: The power of language
- Questions through time [PDF] (3.3 KB)
- COBUILD dictionary (recommended by Georgina)
- Guidance and more information on the Frayer model and Kagan structures (referred to by Kate)
Craig Barton: Hello and welcome to Inside Exams. I’m Craig Barton, I’m a maths teacher with 15 years of classroom experience, but while I’m reasonably competent at things like setting homework and teaching Pythagoras I have to say that there are plenty of things about the exams our GCSE and A-level students take that still feel a bit foreign to me. So across this series I’m going to be asking what you want to know from the exam boards before venturing into unchartered territory to uncover the mysteries behind the exams our students take. Today it’s all about language, words reflect our understanding of the world but they actively shape it too, rousing speeches can convince us to go to war, to explore the moon, to become activists, not necessarily because of their content but because of their imagery, their poetry, their pronouns. Language sparks imagination, the words our students read in a question paper will influence their ability to imagine the answer. So do exam boards consider this when they’re writing questions? Before I set out on my first journey I need to know what else you need to know?
Vicky Burt: My name is Vicky Burt and I am a biology teacher at a grammar school. Do you have any kind of panel where you look at the language? Is there anybody who decides on the wording of questions? And the examples, you’ve got students from all kinds of backgrounds, students who didn't necessarily grow up in this country, who decides on what your average inner city teenager is going to know?
Craig Barton: A single word could be interpreted very differently by each of our students, they’ll all be informed by their backgrounds, their experiences, their knowledge. So how do exam writers pick words that make it irrefutably clear what response is expected? Like Vicky asked, do they think about it at all? Now one of AQA’s assessment design managers is Georgina Homes and I suspect she’ll be just the person to answer all your questions. So I’m going to meet her to find out more.
Hello Georgina and first off thank you so much for inviting me here today. Now you are an assessment design manager, that is a very fancy title, I love it, what does it involve?
Georgina Holmes: Well it involves quite a lot of different things, one of the things that I typically do is I’m involved in the question paper writing process as an assessment expert. So I work with subject experts and I tend to spend quite a lot of my time looking at question papers to look at language accessibility. There are lots of different things that I look for when I’m doing that. We generally tend to make sure that there is few words as possible in a question. We try to shorten sentences and put them on separate lines where possible and make sure there is absolute clarity in questions, that there’s no ambiguity for students at all.
Craig Barton: Can I just ask you a quick question on this, after you’ve been doing this for many, many years, do you develop a bit of a skill where you see a question and immediately you think uh-oh that’s got to go, that’s got to go, move that around? Have you got a bit of a knack, can you not look at a question in the same way anymore?
Georgina Holmes: I can't look at anything in life, I can't read anything without thinking there is a much simpler way to say that, there absolutely is a knack to it. You’re right the first thing I generally tend to do is just go through and score out words that are just not necessary or information that’s not necessary. After we’ve removed those words we want to make sure that what we’re asking is as clear as possible, so thinking the words that we’ve got left are they the right words? Are they the words that will allow students to give us the response that we’re asking for in the mark scheme? I think once you get into it and once you start doing it, it becomes quite easy to see, but I think when you’re starting out you just put a question out there. But it goes through a really quite lengthy process and is looked at by an awful lot of people. I think that’s the other difficulty, we’ve got lots of different areas that we need to make sure that we meet. So obviously students come first that exam is about what they can show us in terms of what they know and the skills that they have. But we also need to think about regulatory compliance for Ofqual, we need to make sure that we’re assessing the specification content that’s laid out in the specification and that we haven’t changed the wording of that in any way to confuse students.
Craig Barton: Could you try and give us a sense of what kind of steps are involved in starting with creating these questions, going through all these checks to then getting to the final finished product that is the exam?
Georgina Holmes: It is quite a lengthy process, it generally takes about a year and a half from start to finish.
Craig Barton: A year and a half?
Georgina Holmes: Yeah, and a lot of different people look at it and in addition quite often the people that work with us are teachers because it’s extremely important that they’re involved in the process, they are at the coalface with students, they know what’s going on in schools, so often they have full time jobs. But we have a couple of really important points in the process where the question paper is reviewed and at really in very early on drafts we haves somebody called a reviser come in, who again is often a teacher, and they have really quite a lengthy checklist to look at that covers all sorts of things. They look at assessment objectives, they look at the cognitive demand of the question, they have to check that it meets the subject content and also that the response we’ve given in the mark scheme is likely to be elicited by the question that we’ve asked. When it comes to language the revisers will look at the command words to make sure that they’re used consistently and appropriately. They’re asked to make sure that every item is written in plain English and that it’s clear to understand. In terms of the target student group, is the language accessible, is it understandable and is it appropriate? They’re asked to check that all sources are clear to read and also that the items avoid any bias stereotyping or offensiveness. That’s just part of the list, it’s not everything.
Craig Barton: Now you mentioned there language accessibility and the first thing that’s going through my head here is that there’s a lot involved in putting these questions in these exam papers together. So can we dive a bit deeper into that if that’s all right?
Georgina Holmes: Of course.
Craig Barton: Now let’s take word count first, now I’m a maths teacher and I like a nice short sharp question so it’s obvious what it’s about, but then there’s some, even in maths, there’s some lengthy epics. So I wonder could you just talk to me a bit about word count, are you bound by any specific guidelines? Do you try and make questions as short as possible? Is there complete freedom? What are some of the considerations when it comes to word count?
Georgina Holmes: We don't have a specific word count that we have to adhere to but you’re absolutely right to say that questions being as short as possible is actually really important. What we don't want to do in an exam with a question is to give students any additional words that they would have to understand, that they don't really need to answer the question. There are only so many bits of information that a person can hold in their brain at one time and it’s actually quite small, I think it’s about three to five. So if we’ve written a question and it’s got lots of different aspects to it and we’re asking students to hold all those aspects in their head while they respond to the question that wouldn't really be appropriate. Sometimes in the past we have had questions where in order to keep the narrative of the section of a paper, say for example if all the questions are linked to one area, we might add a stem in at that beginning that gives some explanation to the question that’s about to come. But we’re starting to remove a lot more of that information because essentially we don't need students to understand that bit and it doesn’t help them answer the question so we don't put it in.
Craig Barton: Got it, so short and sweet is the way forward?
Georgina Holmes: Definitely.
Craig Barton: I don't suppose you could give us an example of a question that may be you’ve just tweaked slightly and taken out a few of these superfluous words just to illustrate this?
Georgina Holmes: So an example of a question here would be, explain how the demand for water is met within the UK? Now that does actually come across as a reasonably short question, it’s okay isn’t it? But we can actually take a few words out and we can change the phraseology of it to make it even more simple.
Craig Barton: Let’s play a game here, say that question one more time and maybe the listener can think what words are going to come out of this, go for it, what’s that question again?
Georgina Holmes: So the question again is, explain how the demand for water is met within the UK? Any ideas?
Craig Barton: I’m liking the sound of it. Go on, what have you done with that one?
Georgina Holmes: Okay, so we would change that to, explain how water demand is met in the UK?
Craig Barton: So what’s gone there, specifically what’s been changed there?
Georgina Holmes: So we’ve taken out the word ‘the’ which is not needed. We’ve changed, ‘demand for water’ to ‘water demand,’ it means exactly the same thing but it takes another word which is ‘for’. And instead of saying, ‘is met within the UK,’ we’ve just removed the word ‘within’ so it says, ‘in the UK.’ So this if a fieldwork based question, state the title of your fieldwork enquiry in which human geography data were collected. That was quite wordy isn’t it?
Craig Barton: Yeah.
Georgina Holmes: We can definitely do something with that.
Craig Barton: Absolutely.
Georgina Holmes: And that can be changed to, state the title of your human geography fieldwork enquiry.
Craig Barton: Wow, that’s quite a big cut down that one.
Georgina Holmes: It is quite a big cut down, I think we’ve taken at least a third of that off and essentially we’re asking students for exactly the same thing. And actually the second one is definitely much clearer.
Craig Barton: It’s fascinating isn’t it because it’s subtle changes and you probably ... I’m thinking surely that’s not going to make all that difference, but then I’m thinking of my students, they’re in the exam, they’ve all the anxiety that goes with exams, they’ve perhaps just come off an epic question the question before, they’ve all these thoughts swimming around their head and those little changes might just make a world of difference mightn’t they?
Georgina Holmes: Absolutely, yeah, and it’s so important to us that we really give the opportunity to let students show us what they know and what they can do, and if we’ve got anything in an exam that doesn’t allow them to do that then it’s not as valid as it should be. There are quite a few other considerations that come into that, when you think about the ability range of all the students in a class. So you’ve got students who are low, medium and high ability, one exam is meant to assess the whole ability range. Now one of the other things that we haven’t quite talked about yet is demand and demand of the content. So you might look at a question and think that’s actually really difficult, hopefully it won’t be the language that’s making it inaccessible but the content could be seen as being too demanding for a particular student. The content that’s in a specification is derived from Ofqual criteria, so awarding bodies don't have full control over the content that students study.
Craig Barton: Can I ask you about context, now this is something that fascinates me, so we’ve talked about word count, we’ve talked about the complexity of the language, but the actual context that these questions and language are set in. My first question on this is are you influenced by changing modern trends, do context adjusts to move with the times?
Georgina Holmes: I think there are some subjects that probably lend themselves quite well to using contexts that are fairly up to date subjects such as geography, quite often you use real life examples in exam papers. Now exam papers are actually written two years before they’re sat by students, so one of the difficulties with that is that things have moved on a little bit by then. I think in all honesty we just tried to keep the context as basic and as simple as possible. I think it’s helpful if a context is something that can relate to where possible, but it’s also very difficult because when you think about the number of students that take GCSEs it runs into hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands, you have to be careful not to make sweeping assumptions about what students might know about or what might be interested in.
Craig Barton: Absolutely. And just to clarify again is there a requirement to have a certain proportion of contextual questions within an exam? So you’re not just choosing to put these contexts in there you have to, is that right?
Georgina Holmes: Yeah, absolutely. So that application has to be context that students won’t be familiar with, that they won’t have come across in the specification or it can also be where they have to make links between areas of the specification that they wouldn't necessarily have been taught in class.
Craig Barton: That’s a big demand isn’t it for a question writer putting something together, particularly that it’s unfamiliar from the specification because almost the specification has all the obvious ones, so then you’re forced to think oh ... certainly in maths sometimes it feels like some of these contexts are shoehorned in there when they’re not really relevant. How do you go about getting a sense of whether these contexts are appropriate for students, because the point you’ve made is that the purpose of the exam has to be assess what kids know and it can't be unfair for them? So are students ever involved in the process of when these questions are being written, getting a sense of whether they do understand what the question’s asking, how do we know we’re pitching it right?
Georgina Holmes: Our senior associates who write the papers with us bring their subject expertise but many of them bring teaching experience as well. They tend to work in a variety of different types of schools. So they will absolutely look at something and say I think that, yeah, the majority of the kids in my class would understand that or they might say there’s no way that’s going to work, the kids just won’t understand what that means when we say it. We have scrutineers who actually sit the papers, we have two of those, so they sit the papers blind to make sure that they can answer them. Even if you work with teenagers, you work with GCSE students, putting yourself in their position and imagining what it’s like to be them and what they know and what they understand and what they see is really very difficult.
Craig Barton: I’m going to say it now, I couldn’t be more out of touch, I consider myself quite hip I don't have a flipping clue, especially if I try and bring in something into the lesson that I think they’re going to love this and they’re like what the hell are you on about here? I remember anything with social media I try and shoehorn that in because of course kids love social media and they’re like what are you doing?
Georgina Holmes: We got quite a lot of kickback on social media last year when we put tweets in a GCSE geography exam and a lot of the kids got on social media, on Twitter to say we see you AQA and that is not cool.
Craig Barton: You can't please everybody.
Georgina Holmes: No, to be honest they’ve been quite light-hearted about it but I think you’re right.
Craig Barton: What do you do for students who have English as an additional language? Because the reason I’m asking this, and it goes back to something we’ve spoken about already, that we want to make sure that we are assessing their knowledge of the content, we don't want them to be disadvantaged by language issues. Is that a consideration and do AQA account for that when they’re creating the questions?
Georgina Holmes: Yeah, absolutely, so it’s exactly the types of things that we talked about already, making sure that we’re using more commonly used words rather than less commonly used words. So we would say use and not utilise and make and not produce. There is actually a dictionary I think called the COBUILD dictionary which tells you what is a more commonly used version of a word, which is a really good thing to use.
Craig Barton: What’s that the COBUILD...?
Georgina Holmes: COBUILD, C-O-B-U-I-L-D dictionary. I think it’s produced by Collins but it tells you what is a commonly used word. So you can type it in and it will tell you how often it’s used. One of the other things that we do is we work with BATOD who are the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf. And they’ve worked with us for quite some time and they see early drafts of our question papers and they’re able to comment on them, because as you could understand students who are deaf language is very different for them. So we get a full report from BATOD on each of our question papers and we’ll make changes to that paper as a result of the report that BATOD send to us.
Craig Barton: Well I find this absolutely fascinating to learn about the thought processes that goes into this and I just think to myself whenever I try to put a practice test together for my kids I’m not thinking about the word count, I’m not thinking about the language I’m using, I’m just grabbing questions banging them together, here you go, enjoy this. Whereas it sounds like there’s a little bit more to it than that.
Georgina Holmes: Yes.
Craig Barton: So I found this absolutely fascinating and illuminating so, Georgina, thank you so much for your time today.
Georgina Holmes: Ah, you’re welcome, thank you for coming.
Craig Barton: Talking to Georgina has made me realise just how much thought and care goes into choosing the words used in exams. But is there more we as teachers could be doing to give our students the best chance to access that language? How can we successfully accommodate and teach students from different backgrounds with different life experiences with different levels of literacy to thrive in the same exam? This all feels a bit of a minefield right now so I’m going to meet Kate Brewer who’s the assistant head at William Perkins C of E to find out what her experience of teaching an incredible number of EAL students has taught her about the importance of language in our lessons. Now she is also a maths teacher like me, so I can't promise we won’t get a bit nerdy and bond over our shared love of logic and linear equations. In fact I can promise you we will but I’m hoping she’ll also be able to share a plethora of principles that can be applied to all our classrooms. So hello Kate and first up thank you so much for inviting us into our school today. Just to start can you give us a bit of an idea of the type of school this is, a bit of context and the kind of students that you teach here?
Kate Brewer: So we are a mixed secondary school and we’re currently in our sixth year, so we’ve just opened our sixth form. We’re a state school but we are a faith school but we’re not selective, so we’re Church of England school in the area of Greenford in Ealing. We’ve about 1,100 students on role and around 35% of those students have English as an additional language.
Craig Barton: Can you just give us a sense how many different languages are we talking about here that might be in a class at any given time or in a school at any given time?
Kate Brewer: Honestly I have no idea, I would think 30 plus.
Craig Barton: 30?
Kate Brewer: In the school I would think.
Craig Barton: Whoa. Now I’ve been speaking to Georgina who is one of a AQA’s assessment design managers and first off the thing that surprised me was just how much thought was going into putting together exam questions and exam papers as a whole. But one area I am pretty clueless about, and I’m ashamed to this, is teaching EAL students, whereas I know you’re an expert in this, so I’m hoping I’m going to get a big education out of this here. So first off what kind of language difficulties do ELA students have?
Kate Brewer: There’s such a range. So looking at the start so when students come into us in year seven if they are quite new to the country they might never have seen topics like probability or geometry before because they’re not actually taught in primary school in other countries.
Craig Barton: Oh, so even the ... again my naivety is coming through here, even the type of maths will be different?
Kate Brewer: Yeah, so the type of maths is different and then there’s a lot of issues around subject specific words, so things that our students would know from primary school like ... or things like that. But then with maths you run into the difficulty of language that is more subject specialised. So if you think about subtraction but we would often say ‘take away,’ but take away means taking food out.
Craig Barton: And it’s getting me hungry as well, yeah, absolutely.
Kate Brewer: Or if you think of the word, odd, so we obviously know that it’s the opposite of an even number when you’re talking about the context of a maths classroom, but also those students are learning that word means different or weird. So it’s being aware of subject specific terms but also the subject specialised terms as well.
Craig Barton: Just on that maths is bad for this isn’t, I always think this myself, first off I should say it’s very nice to be speaking to a maths teacher, on this series they’ve got me speaking to all sorts, English teachers, so it’s good to speak a bit of sense for once here. Maths is full of this dodgy terminology. So things like ‘similar’ means something very specific in the maths classroom and something very different out of it. I always think ‘frequency’ is a bad one as well and I remember I had a year nine class and period four I was teaching probability, so we had frequency, but period three they’d come from a physics class where they’d been doing frequency of waves and they’ve just got to switch. Now that’s bad if you’re a native English speaker but that must be a nightmare for someone who English is their second language.
Kate Brewer: Yes, definitely. So it’s being aware of that and then putting small easy strategies into place to support them.
Craig Barton: Could you give me a bit of a flavour of some of those strategies?
Kate Brewer: I think if it’s a topic like geometry or probability where there’s going to be a lot of key terminology instead of using class time to go through the definitions of those words, we flip the learning. So if we’re starting a new topic on geometry or probability there’s a list of key definitions that we give them, that they go away in their own time to research the meaning, and then we develop on that in the classroom and clarify any meaning.
Craig Barton: Do you find ... the classic thing with flip learning is what do we do if the student hasn’t taken the time to do that, but do you find most of the kids buy into this approach?
Kate Brewer: Yes, definitely, because they know that they’re going to be left behind when they come into the classroom or they might be leaving the person that sits beside them behind, so we do a lot of collaborative learning as well. So if the task was to go away and research these terms and then they’re doing some partner working in the next lesson and they haven’t researched the terms, they’re not going to be able to help their partner with the work.
Craig Barton: If it’s okay I wouldn’t mind asking you a bit more about this peer to peer support because it’s something again that I’ve struggled to make particularly effective in my lessons and you mentioned about this culture that there is about one student doesn’t want to let their mate down so they’re going to do the work the night before. Can you just talk about what does that look like practically in the lessons?
Kate Brewer: So we do a lot of collaborative learning in the maths classroom in school and we use a lot of Kagan structures as well, which is perfect because I think sometimes when we talk about group work or peer to peer support we have this idea of hogs versus logs.
Craig Barton: Oh, you’re going to have to tell me more about this, hogs versus logs?
Kate Brewer: So you’ve got one student he’s high ability he’s going to hog all the work and then you’ve got a student who might be lazy or less confident even who sits like a log and doesn’t do as much.
Craig Barton: I like it.
Kate Brewer: But if you carefully plan and the Kagan structures that have been created and you can get online, everyone has a purpose in this collaborative learning and you avoid the hog versus log sort of scenario. So the first thing to do is really know your class and make sure that your seating plan supports students. So are you pairing students of a similar ability but maybe one has weaker English than the other or are you going for I’m going to put my high ability near my low ability? Now there’s arguments for both.
Craig Barton: Can I ask which do you go for there, do you go for the similar ability or the wider range of ability?
Kate Brewer: I work in a four, so you have your high ability and your lowest ability working diagonally across each other.
Craig Barton: I’ve got it, I can picture this I like it.
Kate Brewer: You either work with your shoulder buddy or your face buddy so you never work across the table, so the highest ability and the lowest ability at your table never work together. But you could work with the second or the third and vice versa.
Craig Barton: Are the language difficulties that EAL students have the same as the ones that students who just have literacy issues would have?
Kate Brewer: I think it depends very much on the students. So we have a lot of students who have English as an additional language, who the lack of English is a barrier and you can break that barrier down with children within probably about a year and then they can be set free. There’s other students who it doesn’t come as quickly and then it’s quite similar to students with poor literacy and particularly our first cohort had very low literacy skills across the board. So it was a whole school strategy was put in place to deal with the low literacy skills which then positively impacted the students with EAL as well.
Craig Barton: We mentioned before about tricky words in mathematics particularly these that apply in different subjects so in different contexts, I want to ask you about the words that crop up again and again, and again, particularly in maths exams like your discuss, evaluate all this and I think the technical term is command words. Do you have any strategies for getting kids good at understanding what they mean?
Kate Brewer: So what we actually have across the whole school is a command word booklet, so they’re given that when they enter Key Stage Four and it has the command words, but also how they are applied in different subjects. Because if you’re asked to evaluate in a maths exam whilst the meaning is the same in your geography exam, what you actually have to do to get the mark in the question is quite different.
Craig Barton: Do you have any favourite stories or for want of a better phrase kind of case studies of students who you’ve really seen flourish using these strategies?
Kate Brewer: Well we had our first set of GCSE results this summer and I think a lot of us were like oh have we’ve been doing the right thing –
Craig Barton: Because you don't really know, right?
Kate Brewer: We don't have a clue. So that day in August where we go in and we’re like have we got this right?
Craig Barton: I bet you’re on edge there.
Kate Brewer: Yeah, but it was hugely successful, we were really, really proud of the students especially in terms of the progress that they’ve made. So our progress score was at 1.3 which –
Craig Barton: Wow, I’ll take that, flipping heck.
Kate Brewer: And we had a couple of students who had nine grade nines and one of those students actually joined us in Year Eight and she didn't speak any English at all.
Craig Barton: You’re joking.
Kate Brewer: No, so no English whatsoever and then just made exceptional progress throughout the years. I think when she joined we had eight sets and I think, yeah, when she was in set seven, by the time she got to Year Nine she was in the top set.
Craig Barton: What does that journey look like for that child because again I guess ... I’ve got about a million questions to ask you about this, but my first is how did you know where to set them originally? Is it an assessment before they come in just to get a bit of a feel where they come from? How did you know where to place them originally?
Kate Brewer: It was just looking at where this particular student would get the most literacy support, so she was in that classroom and she would have had additional literacy sessions as well.
Craig Barton: And then is it just a steady ascent through the sets?
Kate Brewer: So we assess them at every quarter and then they move based on how they do in their subjects. So when they’re screened English and maths are double weighted and then when they move into Year Nine they’re set in their individual subjects.
Craig Barton: Do you remember that first meeting with this child, again I don't know what I’m doing there and somebody can't speak ... I don't know where to go with it?
Kate Brewer: I think now because she’s so confident and bubbly and one of our key students in Year 12 it’s so ... I think sometimes we need to remind ourselves that do you remember when she first arrived and couldn’t do anything. I think, yeah, you forget ... but you forget so quickly because they learn so quickly if they’re in the right environment the progress they can make at that age. I wish we could learn a language as quickly at our age do you know what I mean?
Craig Barton: I do and do you use those students ... if we take the girl in question here, would she be using a mentor role for younger students because what a role model that is right?
Kate Brewer: Yeah, we do a lot of mentoring with our sixth-formers and our younger students and they love it, it’s so nice to see them. So they meet in the mornings in the canteen and they have breakfast together and they have a chat and it’s really working well for especially our Year 11s who are on different mentoring programmes. We don't do any intervention as a school at all, we just do mentoring and it’s working really well I think.
Craig Barton: Can I talk to you a bit about exams, now one thing I wanted to dig into with Georgina was the context that these exam questions often contain, because I have a few question marks sometimes about them. What do you think and particularly this kind of trend to include more modern context in questions, is that helpful to students with English as an additional language or is it a hindrance?
Kate Brewer: It’s definitely a hindrance.
Craig Barton: I like this straight off, we’re not on the fence here, go on, tell me more.
Kate Brewer: It’s definitely a hindrance and I feel irrelevant, I feel if we’re trying to assess the students’ maths knowledge that we should be assessing that not whether they can decipher what a question written in quite complicated English is asking them to do? We chose AQA specifically for this reason because we felt that their exam was, if you will, the purist maths exam that there was, I felt some of the other exam boards were taking the wordiness to a new level.
Craig Barton: It’s interesting isn’t it because Georgina’s point was that AQA and all the other exam boards are bound by Ofqual that they have to have a certain proportion of their questions within context. What are some of the context that kids find particularly confusing, have you come across an example perhaps this year or that springs to mind where you thought that’s a question that my students have struggled and how did you help them overcome it?
Kate Brewer: I think the context when it’s context that they would never meet in day to day life. I think a lot of the time they’ve used context where people are working on farms and it’s like our children have never seen sheep, we’re in inner city London they just don't understand this. Again it’s stripping out this unnecessary information and looking at what maths can we do within the question. A lot of the time as well when there is a diagram we’ve done a lot of work with students where we give them just the diagram and we don't give them any of the words, and we ask them what could this question be asking you to do? What could the context be and they come up with their own context questions and then create mark schemes and then they share them with other students. So that then when they go into the exam they’ve had all these different ideas about what the diagram could be linking to and that’s been quite beneficial, because students from different cultures can create questions in different contexts. So we’re learning from each other about each other’s culture as well as about maths.
Craig Barton: Oh, wow, could you give me an example of that?
Kate Brewer: So a lot of the time it’s a shape with a shaded region and it could be this is a pond in a garden and how much lawn will he need –
Craig Barton: All the classics.
Kate Brewer: Yeah, so we just give them the diagram and they come up with such interesting things from a maths point of view, but also then the context, and they usually use each other in their questions as well which they love.
Craig Barton: One of other things I just wanted to ask you about definitions of words and glossaries, is I don't know if you find this, Kate, but often a mistake I’ve made in my career is let’s take something like polygon or quadrilateral, whenever you try and define a word like that, often you end up having to define the words in the definition instead of necessarily going to town with a big wordy definition, it will be here’s an example of what one is, here’s an example of what one isn’t, examples and non examples. Would that be a strategy that you would use?
Kate Brewer: Yeah, definitely, we use Frayer models quite a lot.
Craig Barton: Oh, talk to me about these, this could be my new current obsession, talk to me about Frayer models.
Kate Brewer: So Frayer model is the keyword goes in the centre and then you’ve got four boxes around the outside, you have the definition of the word, characteristics, examples and non examples. I think you’ve just touched on the examples and the non examples are the most important bit of the Frayer model. So for example if you’re going to define the word ‘surd’ in your examples you’ve got examples of surd so root two, root five. In your non examples you’ve got ten but you’ve also got root 16 because that’s a really interesting conversation to get into with the students, why is root 16 not a surd? And they look beautiful in the books as well.
Craig Barton: Oh, they absolutely, they’re works of art these Frayer diagrams aren’t they and we use them as a bit of a mini assessment sometimes. So we’ll have talked surds and what I’m loving is the fact we’re talking about surds, the English teachers will be switching off in droves here but I’m not bothered about them because this is proper stuff here. You’ll have taught surds, they’ve done a homework on surds but for me the only way to really understand surds or any term we define is you’ve got to be able to show me what it is and also what it isn’t. And the Frayer models or Frayer diagrams are a really nice structured way of doing that. Once again, Kate, and this has been a recurring theme throughout this conversation for me, these aren’t strategies just for ELA students these benefit everybody don't they.
Kate Brewer: Absolutely.
Craig Barton: Fantastic, well on a selfish point of view I’m so pleased we’ve spoken today because I’ve got so much to come away with. So, Kate, thank you so much for inviting us into your classroom today.
Kate Brewer: It was my pleasure, thank you.
Craig Barton: What really struck me about the strategies Kate uses to include and support her EAL students is that she manages to cater to each individual’s needs without neglecting the rest of her class. In fact I would say all her strategies could and should be used in all our classrooms regardless of the number of EAL students we teach. I’m certainly going to be giving her tips for successful group work a go. Now this is an education podcast so if you want to do a bit of homework yourself head over to the podcast show notes where you’ll find some fascinating resources that illustrate the evolution of the wording in a single question like Georgina was telling me about earlier. Over the course of this series I’ll be seeking out more exam writers, markers and pioneering teachers to get the answers to your most pressing questions. So if you want to swot up ahead of exam season make sure you rate, review and subscribe to the podcast. Until next time, goodbye.