Colour Coded Wet Rats – improving analytical writing in English

Back in December I blogged about my use of colour coded self-assessment with my GCSE Media Studies class, and I promised a follow-up as I applied the model to English. Here is the result!

Colour coded self-assessment is a technique I stole from Louise Pope (@philosophypope), our incredible Head of PSHRE and member of my teaching and learning team. The aim is to get students to identify where they have met the success criteria for a piece of work using coloured highlighting or underlining. Making it visual in this way enables them to spot patterns. For example, they might be hitting one aspect all the time, but another only sporadically or not at all. Having highlighted their first draft, students can then make improvements in their redrafts focused on expanding on the areas they didn’t hit so often the first time.

This year I have a wonderful Year 10 GCSE English Language and Literature group, and we have been working on Romeo and Juliet for the past term. Their understanding of the play was strong, they were engaged and focused. When writing about the play, they knew all about PEE paragraphs but their explanations just weren’t full and detailed enough. Luckily, we have appointed a fantastic new second in English this year, who has revolutionised our teaching of analytical writing with WET RATS.

I worry that I’m late to the party here, and that English teachers up and down the country have been using this technique for years and I’ve somehow been missing out. But WET RATS was new to me, and it has transformed the way my students write about literature. Here is what WET RATS are:

Romeo and Juliet

The mnemonic is used purely for the explanation part of a PEE paragraph. Students don’t need to to use all of the WET RATS in every paragraph, but it gives them options for things to write about. I taught it by modelling how a paragraph might expand from a single quotation in Romeo and Juliet: 

My paragraph was constructed with the students – it’s not intended as an examplar! Also, it’s important that not all of the WETRATS need to be included in a paragraph. I only did that here in order to demonstrate them, and I’m very conscious that my point about “structure” is weak!

Following on from this we have used WETRATS several times to increase familiarity with the mnemonic and the technique itself. This culminated in a full essay on how Shakespeare creates sympathy for Juliet in Act 3 Scene 5 of the play. I’ve used this essay question many times in teaching the play, but the quality of the analysis my students produced was a real step up from their earlier work. We were on our way!

Of course, as a strong proponent of Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence approach, the first draft is only the beginning (I’ve seen Austin’s Butterfly!) So after the students had completed their drafts, I got them to colour code each element of the WETRATS across their essays. Here is a gallery of some of their work:

The process of colour coding was invaluable. Firstly, it gave them a specific purpose and focus for critically re-reading their own work – a world away from “check your spellings”! Secondly, it caused them to highlight (literally!) which aspects of the success criteria they were hitting more or less often, identifying clear areas for development and well as strengths. And thirdly, when I came to mark their work I already had a scaffold around which to build my feedback. Interestingly, some of the feedback was along the lines of “you’ve clearly written about structure here, but you haven’t highlighted this section.” This may identify a misconception about what “structure” means as a concept in literature (possibly due to my poor modelling of it in the demonstration), or possibly lazy self-assessment. In either case, something to address!

My second experiment with colour-coded self-assessment has been even more successful than the first, as well as helping the students to engage fully with the WETRATS technique. As with any scaffold, the key will be to take it away gradually so the students can write this well independently – I’m with Tom Sherrington on this one! But at this early stage, performance and the students’ awareness of their own learning and progress is markedly better. And more colourful!

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