Can spoken language be put into written form? Yes, of course it can be. But how much does it lay the foundation for writing skills? Certainly not much unless you are writing a performance script.
Teaching writing has been pivotal in the world of education. As students advance in their school years, writing becomes a more complex phenomenon. Hence it is a skill that demands explicit instruction combined with a range of practice exercises.
Why textual analytical skills are essential
Writers rarely reveal their extensive thought processes in their written piece of work and the readers are often left to read between the lines if they are to gain interesting perspectives on the writer’s ideas. Hence, for deeper understanding of a text, it becomes essential for students to use the faculties of an analytical frame of mind, with educators at the helm doing their bit to shape the curious young minds.
However, as we know, no two children learn alike, and the differences in learning would also mean that some students find it puzzling to infer the implicit meaning of a text. This brings to the forea vital component of the teaching process – that of teacher modelling, at least up until the students complete their middle years. Teacher modelling would encourage and direct the students’ thoughts in the desired direction to attain the intended outcome, and successfully navigate the journey towards acquiring the independent writing skills at the high school/IGCSE level.
Interpretation skills – Where to start?
I would like to discuss few of my lessons that particularly focused on the skill of exploring and interpreting connotative word meanings.
To begin with, students were asked to mention any random word that comes to mind. They came up with words such as sky, curtains and necklace. To uncover the meanings beyond the literal one (denotation), they were encouraged to view the word ‘sky’ through the lens of the popular idiom ‘Sky is the limit’ and link it to life and learning. This immediately elicited a response such as ‘Sky is vast, high and infinite, so you can attain great heights and infinite success!’
For many students with specific learning needs, regardless of age, the mere thought of writing could trigger anxiety, self-doubt, confusion and hesitation. It becomes rather important that the teacher takes into consideration their inner struggles before actually exposing them to the task itself. Therefore, the whole purpose behind the above activity was only disclosed once the basics of meaningful interpretation seemed well within their grasp – that, they were in the process of learning to analyse words and phrases by obtaining mental pictures deeper than the obvious, by thinking creatively; that they were on the path to acquiring analytical writing skills.
While images can be better interpreted as they provide visual cues, analysing the deeper meaning of words and to write them logically would require their imagination to leap one-step ahead, which mainly comes through repeated practice. Once they clearly understood the basics of inferring, the next in the process was to guide them through analysing a logo that contained both the image and a slogan.
In my experience as an SEN teacher, it has emerged beyond doubt that most students with mild to moderate learning differences need both visual and auditory input simultaneously to master content. While mere auditory input might demand repetitiveness for assimilation of information, the visual representations stay longer in their short-term memory, resulting in their ability to recall in the form of picture. Indeed, the best multi-sensory approach would include kinesthetic activities as well, however in the present virtual learning world, even teaching science would pose the challenge of having to teach the content within the limits of audio-visual medium.
Analysing a sports team logo involved more discussions, as the students needed time and constant prompting to think about deeper meanings. To make it a less treacherous journey, they were allowed to keep google as their companion in their quest to find the connotations. A paragraph was formed as a guided activity using the words and sentences. Next up was our own school logo.
The sense of excitement and interest in students were palpable. A planning sheet was created with the logo at the centre.
Students were encouraged to think of connotations of the images in the logo and in particular, to think within the context. So when they explored the symbolic meanings, it became easier for them to eliminate the ideas that seemed incongruent to what our school represented. It was interesting to note how the students came up with deeper meanings pertaining to each part of the logo, for example, to one the joint flag meant that the school takes in all cultures, while to another the flags stood for a combination of Indian and British education. It was amazing to note how one of them attributed the circle of the logo to continuous learning! The students were urged to think freely without constraints by reassuring them that there were no right or wrong answers and that it was enough that they give a convincing proof/response.
The whole activity took a good 3-4 lessons but it was worth it as the end result reflected their understanding of analytical writing. Though it is undoubtful that this particular skill, like any other fine work, needs to be refined, sharpened and polished before generating the long-term outcome of natural independent writing, the above exercise has definitely helped to take my students a few steps closer to the nuances of extract analysis, the key to academic essay writing.