October 20, 2012 by Doug Napolitano-Cremin
One of the best, and worse, things about studying for my MA Education is the amount of reading I have to complete. Whenever I take the time to read something that is not related to education, I feel guilty.
‘Shouldn’t I be reading something for work?’
My MA reading has been a blessing though, as it has led to the discovery of some exciting ideas that I hope to develop in my classroom.
One of these ideas has been the concept of the ‘Letter to a Friend’ (L2F). ‘Letter to a Friend’ was used by Keith Trigwell and Michael Prosser to assess students at the end of a unit of study. In their work, Trigwell and Prosser used the letters written by their first year nursing students to assess their depth of understanding of the unit. (Trigwell & Prosser, 1991).
I decided to start using an adapted version of the L2F idea as a means to judge progress across a topic.
I asked pupils to write two letters per topic; one before the start of the topic, and one at the end. Before we started the topic as a class, I showed pupils a quick video that served as an introduction to some of the concepts/questions that we will be studying. I created the video by collecting appropriate clips from YouTube and stitching them together using video editing software. I then asked pupils to write a letter to a friend (real or imaginary!) that described what knowledge they already had about the concepts/questions that were going to be studied. I marked the letter using SOLO taxonomy and gave pupils back the letter and feedback to refer to throughout the topic. Pupils were also asked to write another letter at the end of the topic, this time detailing how their knowledge of the topic had developed. This ‘end-of-topic’ letter was again marked using SOLO taxonomy.
Although the primary objective of the ‘L2F’ task is to assess progress across a topic, the task also provides an opportunity for pupils to practise writing in extended prose. These literacy opportunities can be difficult to come by, especially in my subject, Science. When providing feedback to pupils there was equal importance placed on getting the Science right and having correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. With the introduction of the extended writing questions in the Science GCSE exams, the L2F task is an important opportunity for pupils to really hone their literacy skills.
I used the L2F strategy for two units with a Year 10 Triple Science GCSE class. On the whole I found it to be an incredibly useful experience.
A major advantage of the strategy was that the ‘start-of-topic’ letter enabled me to identify pupil misconceptions about particular scientific concepts. This really informed my planning for the rest of the unit.
The letters were also a useful revision resource for pupils. Pupils valued the letters as immediate and detailed indicators of the progress that they had made throughout the unit.
The videos I made and showed pupils before the topic began where useful in engaging pupils with the subject knowledge. They provided an opportunity to demonstrate the wider relevance of the topic to pupils.
Upon reflection I felt that there were a number of issues with the L2F strategy that need to be addressed before I start using it with more classes.
- The marking load with this strategy is very heavy. The ‘end-of-topic’ letter often coincided with the topic summative assessment which served to further increase the work.
- The task itself did take time for pupils to complete. Depending on the circumstances at the time, I tried to plan the task so that the pupils completed the letters for homework. This was not always possible, and some pupils did find it difficult to complete their letters during class time.
Despite the issues described, I do believe that the advantages of this strategy mean that it warrants further exploration. I intend on using the strategy with more of my classes, however there are some areas that I would like to develop/improve further:
- I would like to make this strategy one that requires minimum effort, from a teachers perspective, but has maximum impact. As a result I know the issues surrounding the marking of the letters need to be addressed. I would like to develop the use of peer assessment with this strategy, but this will require pupils to be trained in the art of providing positive and informative feedback! This wont get rid of the marking issue and so I will need to investigate this further.
- By using this strategy with more classes, especially with mixed ability KS3 (Years 7-9) classes, I will need to think carefully about differentiation. Many pupils will find the idea of writing an extended piece of prose incredibly daunting. I will be considering the use of writing frames for some pupils and I will need to investigate further strategies that ensure the task is accessible to all.
- I would like to explore the possibility of pupils using blogs to write their letters. I would like to investigate how the use of blogging could affect pupil engagement with the task. I would also anticipate that by using commenting facilities on blogs, pupils could assess each others work and understanding of the scientific concepts.
- Finally, I would like to work with the English department in my school to see how the Letter to a Friend strategy could be improved. There will be a wealth of expertise available in the department that I haven’t made use of yet, and it would be stupid of me not to tap in to that. As a Science teacher I am not incredibly comfortable when it comes to teaching literacy skills, and so working with the English department could really help to improve my confidence.
I have presented the above ideas to various people, most recently at the York Tweetup (#YorkTU – the presentation used can be seen below) and have received some positive comments, but I am really keen to hear from more people who think that they can offer some feedback – positive or otherwise!
Trigwell, K. & Prosser, M. (1991) Relating approaches to study and quality of learning outcomes at the course level, The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 61 pp. 265-275.