Making use of cognitive apprenticeship in English teaching

This is an academic concept I came across recently in an article related to training medical students. It means making the process of thinking more visible, so students do not just get an understanding of what to do, but also how to do it. However, it is also an excellent model for teaching English and I try to include these steps in my lessons. English is a skills-based subject and students cannot thrive unless they are trained in the development of these skills through active modelling by the experts. The benefits are not just limited to English though, and part of the focus of cognitive apprenticeship is transferring the skills learnt to other tasks. A strong understanding of the fundamentals of analysis and evaluation are particularly relevant to subjects such as history, but they can even be linked to other disciplines such as science. Here are the six key steps of Cognitive Apprenticeship, and how they can be followed in the English classroom:

Modelling 

Modelling should be an important element of English teaching. It means the teacher actively demonstrating how to write answers to the students. I often write the first paragraph of an essay with students so that they can watch the process in action. This is better than simply giving them a model answer, and it means I can discuss what I am doing with them at the time. They need to understand the thought process that goes into writing the paragraph and how all the different parts come together to form the answer. I can explicitly tell them which assessment objectives I am addressing in which section, and they also have the opportunity to ask me questions about what I am doing. Cognitive apprenticeship is not just about demonstrating the task – it means demonstrating the thinking skills that are required in order to achieve the task. The teacher thus needs to clearly explain what they are doing and why. 

Coaching 

The next stage is then to hand over to the student. I will often watch what they do on the screen or mark their work in their book and observe how well they are able to analyse and evaluate the text. Afterwards, I will give them feedback on their technique, highlighting areas where they can develop their skills further. This feedback often tends to be verbal in lessons, but I do also provide more formal written feedback to assist them on their learning journey. 

Scaffolding 

Once feedback has been given, the teacher then needs to put scaffolding in place to help the student improve. In English, writing frames are a key source of scaffolding. They help the student to produce a response and this support is then gradually withdrawn over time. A PEE paragraph chart can be used for this. The student begins by completing just one section of the chart, focusing on the development of one skill at a time. As the student becomes more confident, the teacher then leaves another section blank, and keeps building on this until the student is completing the task independently. 

Reflection 

The student thinks about the skills they have been working on and analyses the thought processes they have been using. Self and peer assessment can be a very good tool for this, but again it needs to be presented in a way that focuses on the thinking skills students require. These forms of assessment are only useful if students know exactly what they are looking for in their work, and hence a success criteria checklist is often vital. For example, they may find that they are struggling to choose effective quotations for their points, so this is the part of the thought process they need to work on further. 

Articulation 

After reflecting on their progress, students then need to have the opportunity to discuss their learning with others. Working in a pair to discuss their findings from their self and peer assessment can allow the student the time and space to explore their areas for development. 

Exploration 

Once students are confident with the skills, they can then move on to apply them to other topics and subjects. For example, a student may be able to transfer the analytical skills they have learnt in English over to their history essays, adapting the thought process model to suit the demands of the subject. The idea is that by this stage, the student should be well on the way to becoming the expert, instead of the teacher. 

Bright Sky Tutoring is dedicated to providing first-rate tutoring that is driven by the best practises and methods. If you would like to find out more about the secondary English support we provide, get in touch today at hello@brightskytutoring.com

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