In writing this post I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I had not used the very thing I am about to question. As an NQT, I was immensely proud of my PEA mobiles which I hung from my classroom ceiling, my ‘chair dressing’, and my walking / talking parts of analytical paragraphs made up of whichever unsuspecting students were in front of me at the time. But what happens when this approach takes over at the expense of everything else? 10 years and an evening debate later, I feel I have finally achieved clarity about how we can help students structure their analyses of texts without it becoming a strait-jacket.
The process of interpretative reading is very different to writing about that same reading
In essence, my clarity comes down to the very thing I want my students to do most – recognise that different types of writing and speaking have different sets of parameters. Interpretative reading of a text, whether that be a literary text or not, is a very different process to writing about that reading. Interpretative reading should be about open-mindedness – a recognition that both writer/speaker and reader/listener approach that text with a whole host of assumptions/attitudes/beliefs and intentions. This massively impacts on their reading of a text and unless we encourage students to start their interpretation of a text from this point, we are not allowing them to see that texts are ‘real’ – they are not artificial constructs designed for students to analyse in examinations.
Louise Rosenblatt sees reading as a transaction where both the reader and the text have a symbiotic relationship. Her description of reading as a ‘live circuit’ (1970, 1978 and 1985) sits comfortably with me, as does the work of Michael Benton. He asserts that a “’response’ is a process not a product, or even a series of products.” Benton et al. (1988: 202). As a teacher of English I want to cultivate this idea of process not product. Reducing a response to a text, as a PEA paragraph for example, is creating a product rather than a process. This is bound to affect the richness of both the students’ experiences, as well as the quality of their responses to that text. The article linked below from English in Education is well worth reading in terms of exploring this further.
I wrote here:
An approach to tackling unseen data.
about the approach I have found which works best for me in getting my students to engage with interpretative reading of texts. But what happens next? How does this then translate into a written response? Above all, it requires an appreciation that the subsequent writing about these interpretations is an entirely different process.
Why can’t students write up their analyses in the same way they formulated them?
When I work with my A level students about how they can write about their analyses of data, I always ask them to write about these by reversing their thinking process. So my students think about a text in the following way – context / ideas and concepts / linguistic methods – but they never write their responses in this way. Why? Because it leads to an unsystematic response which is confusing to a reader, leads to them making assumptions and generalisations, and because it very often leads to meandering descriptive writing about a text rather than a sharp, focused and insightful analytical piece of writing which illuminates the data in a meaningful and considered way.
Why a formulaic approach like PEA should be questioned
It is worth thinking about where PEA / PETAL / SQUID (I have never come across this myself but am assured it is real) originate from. We all know that there is a structure to writing an analytical response to a text. I was never taught this at school in the explicit way we seem to encourage students to formulate responses now, but my experience from reading those types of writing, and my experience of writing them myself, meant that in effect I was doing this. I would write in a way which structured my analysis around making a point, giving evidence of where that point was exemplified, and then writing about how and why I had come to that interpretation. It might not have been called PEA but in crude terms, it was. However, there was a critical difference – I was never asked to respond to a text immediately by completing this ‘formula’, nor was I ever taught that this ‘formula’ was all it required to write a good response.
I am not arguing that students do not need to have a structure when they write up their analyses, but I am questioning whether constraining them to an overly formulaic approach is the best way to do that. I see it in my own students’ responses – particularly in English Language where students can sometimes struggle to develop their points meaningfully and they end up just glossing, for example, child language acquisition theories.
For me, students need to appreciate that part of good textual analysis is looking for patterns, and linking ideas – not just completing the ‘answers’ to what a particular formula demands. My experience is that in encouraging students to take this approach, it limits a depth and richness of analysis as it almost promotes a ‘once you have written a PEA paragraph it’s time to move on to the next one’ mindset. Analytical writing should, at its best, demonstrate to its reader the depth of how that analysis has come into being. And that’s not just by completing one PEA chain. Going back to my previous post, the thinking that went into the creation of that interpretation of the data was not a quick process and it is often impossible to separate elements from each other – both across the assessment objectives and within the assessment objectives. This is because reading and interpreting a text is complex. It cannot just be reduced to a ‘formula’.
So what’s the alternative to PEA?
One of my favourite phrases when it comes to school improvement processes is ‘tight-loose’ – it is no different in my English teaching. Analytical writing is not a free for all but it’s certainly not a tick box approach which limits the very engagement and joy of reading a text in the first instance. Students need to be encouraged to think and write about their interpretations by making interrelated and complex links clear. They need to be shown how to do this and the best way I have found is by asking them to reverse the process that they went through when they interpreted the text originally. I tell them to write up their interpretation by starting with the linguistic method used, giving me evidence of where this is used, and then linking this to the ideas and concepts, and context within a text. At this point, it is absolutely critical to note that this does not work if students haven’t ‘read’ the text in the first instance from the other way round. If students initially interpret texts in this same way, it leads to feature-spotting and decontextualised analysis.
The below is an example of an analytical paragraph which my year 13s and I created together in response to addressing global errors which analysis of their ENGB3 mock exam responses had shown (a lack of development of ideas, a tendency to approach data in an unhelpful way which centred on judgement and speculation, and responses which lacked linguistic precision).
|In text B, the caregiver uses several features to control the direction and agenda of the conversation.
|In particular, she uses interrogatives such as “have you got some homework to do tonight?” to keep Roxy and Eva engaged and focused.
|This is a common feature of CDS as it keeps the focus of the conversation in the “here” and “now” which is especially important with younger children.
||This can be seen in text B as the caregiver uses more interrogatives when communicating with Eva, the younger sibling. This is likely to be because Roxy is going to be more focused as it is actually her homework and their mum will want to help her, whilst still keeping Eva engaged. At this age children can compete for a caregiver’s attention, so engaging Eva with direct questions may be a strategy used by her mother to avoid her feeling left out.
|The use of interrogatives and pauses is also likely to be due to the caregiver’s more powerful position within the relationship as well as being related to CDS.
(Analysis and Evidence)
|This can be seen in the data when the mum uses an imperative alongside the interrogatives, “let’s just clear the table (.) no let’s just clear the table.” Here, the imperative is mitigated by the use of the adverb “just” alongside the contraction “let’s” due to the close relationship between the participants. Mitigating the imperative is a common strategy used by caregivers to ‘coax’ children into following instructions. Despite this, the caregiver’s power is made clear when she repeats the phrase adding a pause, and the use of “no” to assert her control.
||In the domestic setting of this data, the participants are going to be familiar with the expected roles and behaviour, and it is likely that completing homework is part of a routine which both Roxy and Eva are used to. This may explain some of the shared references which are made.
Approaching the writing of their analysis in this way, rather than just writing up the way they had originally ‘read’ the data was enabling to them all, regardless of their ability. Less confident students felt reassured they had a structure, and more able students were able to see how they could develop their analyses in an appropriate way. All of them wrote far better responses when they redid their mock exam for me after this lesson.
So what’s the problem?
If we accept that there is a structure to analytical writing, why am I so frustrated when I see the use of ‘formulas’ in classrooms or see students responding in this way? My answer to this has developed over the last week and for me, it has come down to three key points:
- Reading a text in an interpretative way is fundamentally different to writing about that interpretation.
- Asking students to respond to a text straight away by completing a PEA worksheet or activity denies them the thinking process which will allow them to do that in a meaningful way. Even more importantly for me, this approach completely destroys what much of my love of English teaching is about.
- In our attempt to help students respond in a way which will help them in examinations, we are actually constraining them and denigrating their responses to mere mechanical processes which will never demonstrate the depth needed for them to actually achieve the top mark bands.
I am lucky to have someone who is able to give me the ‘science’ to my instinctive thinking and experience in the classroom, and whilst I am reassured that I am not just ‘making up’ what I think is happening, the theory simply confirms my practical experience in the classroom. I would therefore strongly advocate anyone reading this to try the approach in my previous post, and to think about what I have written here next time you use PEA or any other number of ‘structures’ when asking students to respond to texts.
Benton, M. , Teasey, J., Bell, R. and Hurst, K. (1988) Young Readers Responding to Poems, London: Routledge.
Giovanelli, M. and Mason, J. (2015) ‘Well I don’t feel that’: Schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom’, English in Education, 49(1): 41-55.
Rosenblatt, L. (1970) Literature as Exploration, London: Heinemann.
Rosenblatt, L. (1978) The Reader, the Text and the Poem, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Rosenblatt, L. (1985) ‘The transactional theory of the literary work: Implications for research, in C. R. Cooper (ed.) Researching Response to Literature and the Teaching of Literature: Points of Departure, Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp 33-53.