Year 9 English: how explicit teaching of metalanguage and a Reading Journal improved analytical writing

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"Those of us on the inside know its special joy: the precious window of opportunity between the self-doubting, oft-misdirected energies of the junior secondary years and the aspirational anxiety of VCE. Every ancient culture knew that this is the time for initiation into adulthood and, indeed, this is also our lived experience in the classroom." write teachers Mrs Katrina Renard and Mrs Cathie Waldron in Idiom magazine highlighting the delight and fulfillment of teaching Year 9.

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In the media: Idiom magazine V56 Katrina Renard and Cathie Waldron, Strathcona Girls Grammar

Being a specialist Year 9 English teacher does not command the professional jealousy that it ought.

Those of us on the inside know its special joy: the precious window of opportunity between the self-doubting, oft-misdirected energies of the junior secondary years and the aspirational anxiety of VCE. Every ancient culture knew that this is the time for initiation
into adulthood and, indeed, this is also our lived experience in the classroom.

At Year 9, it is suddenly the majority who are ready (nay, desperate) for eye-level discussions about ethics, politics, love and courageous personal growth. Beyond the talk, many are even
open again (returned to their Grade 6 glory?) to self-belief and improvement. Thus, the leap towards greater intrinsic motivation is on the table. Year 9 students  predominantly show commitment to learning new things in new ways, coupled with a narrative of greater teacher trust in their readiness. Striking this adult tone of positive regard brings out their best selves, a genuine interest in growing their expertise and taking command over themselves as learners.

In these perfect growing conditions, a good gardener knows to get the trellis up and train the vine towards the sun. Our trellis turned out to be careful sequencing (exploration, then
metalanguage, then application) across three areas, and structured analysis, facilitated through a Reading Journal.

Year 9 students predominantly show commitment to learning new things in new ways, coupled with a narrative of greater teacher trust in their readiness. Striking this adult tone of positive regard brings out their best selves, a genuine interest in growing their expertise and taking command over themselves as learners.

The Reading Journal, that began as a neat digital solution to remote learning, turned out to be a vehicle for explicit metacognition and skill building, resulting in visible leaps in students’ analytical writing.

From the ‘Background Reading’ section that opened it and built a theoretical landscape, to the ‘Glossary’ of metalanguage at its conclusion, the Reading Journal that guided the Year 9
English course through Term Two was a metacognitive and practical success.

It laid bare our compartmentalised skills building approach, situated every learning activity within a wider context, and physically spelled out our staged, incrementally deepening analysis of the text. This not only provoked excellent learning and analytical work but resulted in a clear and transferrable understanding for our students of the elements of comprehensive study and analysis of any English text in their future. What’s more, the 26,000 word submission from one of our cohort reminded us that student-driven
differentiation had also been optimised.

The Reading Journal, first constructed for Abdel-Fattah’s When Michael Met Mina and, more lately, for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, consists of the following transferrable sections:
1) Background reading – author, setting, literary period and central concerns; 
2) Plot overview;
3) Literary features;
4) Chapter review questions;
5) Character study;
6) Theme Study;
7) Writing Skills;
8) Glossary.

Explicit metalanguage PowerPoints were dropped strategically to achieve experiences of authentic use.

For example, after the Plot overview had been completed in dot points, the ‘Stages of a story’ metalanguage PowerPoint was delivered: inciting moment, exposition, rising action: conflict, tension, climax: turning point, falling action, denouement: resolution.

Now the dot point overview could be transformed to six succinct scenic descriptions that employed the correct metalanguage to make comment on the intended impact of the author. This was completed across one hour, in small groups, and delivered by class presentation the following day.

Similarly, metalanguage PowerPoints on ‘Literary features’ and ‘Analysing characters’ were dropped after initial exploration and immediately before small student groups were tasked with the construction of short, analytical paragraphs that used that metalanguage to describe the construction of the text, or construction of their assigned character, and connecting these observations to the way the author’s views and values were made apparent to readers.

Although we called it a Reading Journal, some sections operated more as a workbook: the background reading was largely prescribed and the chapter review questions were carefully constructed. But many of the other sections were given only subheadings, class time, provocations for small group discussion, and time dedicated to independent writing.

For example, each Character page of their Reading Journal was required to have three sections, namely:

a) Character description: role, traits, attitudes and behaviour;
b) Quotes: minimum of ten quotes, by or about that character, with a scenic/ contextual description and the author’s intended impact; and
c) Analysis: use 
metalanguage to explain the character’s role in revealing at least one of the author’s views and values. Students’ work was scaffolded but they were not fed the answers. The results were exciting.

By the end of the eight week unit, the visible results in students’ journal work and their final text response writing were thrilling and, just as importantly, the students’ pride and self-awareness about their growth was palpable. Visible teaching, metacognition and metalanguage led the way and won the day.