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Can video help in delivering engaging English literature lessons?

Nick McIlhatton, head of year 11 at Sir John Talbot’s School, gives us his thoughts on the issue of ‘teaching to the test’ and explains how he is using technology to deliver broad but effective teaching

School performance has become an incredibly scrutinised statistic in recent decades. Policy after policy aims to boost standards, particularly in the core subjects. But because schools have to attract students to receive per pupil funding, their livelihood can depend on its test results and GCSE grades. Does this therefore put pressure on schools to teach to the test?

We all understand the power of student engagement. In the sciences we can absorb students in the learning through various challenges and hands on experiments, but in English literature, engaging students – especially boys – in the learning, can be difficult.

I’m sure if I asked most people to describe their English literature class, they’d say “boring” and it’s not difficult to understand why.

Traditionally we all sat in class reading through the whole play, reciting the lines and answering a number of questions on a sheet. Not much of the information was really understood, and by the time it got to exams, little was retained. In literature, learning can’t be about memorising quotes; the students also have to understand them.

To really engage students in English literature stories and plays, to a certain extent you do have to start with the central plot and stories within the story. While some could argue that this is ‘teaching to the test’ it’s actually about ensuring the students understand and enjoy the stories. There are so many pages within each play that are irrelevant; I know that if I made my students read and discuss every page I’d lose them all.

So, at Sir John Talbot’s School we have started using videos of the central plot and surrounding story lines to make the plays and stories more thought provoking.

It is my strong belief that today’s technology is ideal for grasping students’ attention in most areas of learning, and for me it’s proven to be ideal for English literature.

Let’s take Pride and Prejudice as an example. As you can imagine, developing an appreciation of the play using only the book is a challenge for us all. However, when they watch a video of the major turning point within the novel when the letter exposes Darcy’s true feelings towards Elizabeth and her rejection strikes a blow to his pride, the students are suddenly engrossed in the story. It is for these learning concepts that digital images and audio visuals are powerful in learning.

You could say that focusing on audio visual files of the key parts of the story is teaching to the test, but what it does at our school is gets the students inspired enough to start a deeper discussion about the broader plot. Without this they wouldn’t do very well in their GCSEs.

It is my strong belief that today’s technology is ideal for grasping students’ attention in most areas of learning, and for me it’s proven to be ideal for English literature.

The challenge for teachers however is sourcing high quality, factual visuals, that are aligned to the curriculum; this can use up the spare time that teachers just don’t have.

However, there are many education-specific resources available, and ultimately it is up to the teacher to decide how much of their input is required and in which cases. The visual concept will provide the necessary learning support. In addition to video’s power in the classroom, it is also the perfect homework revision resource. Videos reduce the amount of paper or books that have to be taken home, and marking can be done automatically leaving me with time to focus on teaching.

I commonly give them a video to watch and set a question. When they come into class the next day, we have a discussion about their interpretation of the clip. This format of homework feeds nicely into the lesson without taking over.

And the results speak for themselves: our English literature results have risen from 59.6% in 2016 to 66.2% in 2017, and 81.2% in 2018; that’s all the proof I need that teaching in this way is absorbing our students in the learning, and because they really understand the stories and plays they are retaining it through to their exams.