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Snapshot 18: Using the AOs to identify learning needs

This snapshot describes how the teacher of an all-boys class went back to the curriculum to identify and plan for the learning needs of their students – with results that surprised everyone.


At the start of the year, my English class consisted of twenty year 12 boys and three year 13 boys. The year 12s had mostly gained NCEA level 1 credits; the year 13s wanted to gain a few extra level 2 credits.

During the first week of term I ran a few diagnostic assessments to see how skilled the students were at close reading. The results were very disappointing. The students seemed to have very little understanding of language features and they had left lots of gaps in their responses, with many questions unanswered. I asked them why. It turned out that they didn’t understand what they were being asked. I realised that if I were to carry on as planned, they would not achieve much, so I decided to redesign my whole programme.

Teacher action

I carefully read the level 7 achievement objectives to try to identify what my students needed. As I read, the following really resonated with me:

  • Integrate … strategies purposefully, confidently and precisely …
  • Thinks critically ...
  • Show a discriminating understanding of how texts are shaped for different purposes and audiences
  • Show a discriminating understanding of how language features are used for effect …

I made these objectives the focus of the entire first term and decided to see how things went before planning the rest of the programme in detail. I was not confident that the students would be ready for any formal assessment this term, so I decided to wait for a month or so to see how their learning was progressing.

I planned the first term programme around American oratory because the ideas and language features are usually more obvious than in New Zealand oratory. I started with some really explicit teaching about language features and their effects.

We also looked closely at purpose and audience. The students realised that the purpose of a Barack Obama campaign speech is quite different from Ronald Reagan’s eulogy after the Challenger shuttle disaster. We used lots of YouTube clips to help us understand audience. For example, we considered the different audiences for Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can” speech in November 2008 and his 2012 State of the Union Address.

They started to get it. I was thrilled with their growing confidence.

What happened?

The students became far more able to articulate their ideas. They wrote longer, more discriminating responses and started to think more deeply about speeches.

I offered them the chance to do some assessment for NCEA and they took it. I suggested that, since we had been making meaning when studying oratory, it was time for them to create their own speech.

Pinching an idea from a colleague, I had the students deliver an address as if they were US President, or Prime Minister of New Zealand. It had to be a six-minute, full-fat, high-calorie, maximum-energy, locked-and-loaded presidential-style address, jam-packed with juicy language features like motifs and historical allusions.

Some of the speeches were sensational. One announced that North Korea had just invaded South Korea and that the world was on the brink of nuclear war; another praised the “stoical” and “blitz-spirited” people of Christchurch for their “brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand” rebuilding of their garden city. At times, I would have goose bumps listening to the students! I have never before set an activity that so captured student interest.

The year 13 students in the class did not present a speech for assessment. After discussion with me, they decided to look at a range of connections across five or so speeches, so we selected a task to be assessed by the level 2 standard, AS91104: Analyse significant connections across texts, supported by evidence.

One student wrote an amazingly insightful report that was well beyond anything I was expecting. It was significantly better even than the excellence exemplar. After discussion, and a closer look at what was required for level 3, the student reworked his report. I then assessed it against a level 3 language research standard – it gained excellence.

I then started planning the rest of the programme with the aim of moving into ideas and language more subtle than those found in political rhetoric. As a class, we decided to look at film next. I felt that, by heading down this path, it was likely that the students would maintain their newfound confidence. Now that the rest of the year’s direction was clear to me, I planned to make the programme more challenging as we went, ending with a poetry study that would be externally assessed.

Last updated July 17, 2012