Why English is More Important Than You Think

Feb 9, 2017NCEA, Study Tips, Subject Specific Advice

NCEA is a complicated system. In all honesty, I don’t envy parents who have never experienced it first hand trying to make sense of how it works. Especially not when it’s explained in the drips and drabs students often tell you over the course of their time at school.

You’re probably aware that students’ work is marked either Not AchievedAchievedMerit or Excellence. What you might not know is what these different marks are actually founded on, or how your child can move from one level to the next.

What are Achieved, Merit and Excellence based on?

What’s interesting about NCEA is that there are not just quantitative differences between the marks, but also qualitative. In other words, doing more of what got you an Achieved will not, in fact, get you a Merit. You have to not only do more, but also do things differently.

Achieved – Facts Are Fine

At Achieved level, students are (mostly) asked to spit out facts. Often questions start with “describe” or “define”. They deal with things that will always be the same.

Differentiate this.

Identify a language feature.

Name the physical properties of copper.

These are facts – the process of differentiation is always going to be the same, a metaphor is a metaphor is a metaphor, and the properties of copper don’t change, either.

Merit and Excellence – Connecting It All Together

But as students move up to Merit and Excellence level, this isn’t the case anymore.

Students go from being asked about simple facts to being asked to link things together, understand the context in which they occur and apply them to new contexts. They need a conceptual, big-picture understanding of the subject, not just knowledge of a bunch of disparate, disconnected facts.

A classic Merit question starts with “Explain…” , while Excellence often begins with “Discuss…”

This is true for all subjects – English, Maths, Science etc. It’s therefore key to understanding NCEA. And key to moving up the marking schedule.

I mentioned before that to move up the marking schedule, students need to do things differently, rather than just do more of the same. This applies to their study habits, too. Doing large amounts of Achieved level study – memorising basic, immutable facts and processes – will not get them to Merit. Even if they do lots of it.

This is not just ineffective, it’s demoralising. Students who put in the time but don’t see the desired results will give up sooner or later. But what they really need to do is start using different study techniques.

Deep vs. Shallow Processing – The Key to Unlocking NCEA?

Conceptual understanding of a topic comes from deep processing. Deep processing basically means actively doing something with the information. Shallow processing, on the other hand, is simply passively taking it in as is, and spitting it out in the same way.

An Experiment

This has been shown in experiments that study whether taking notes by hand or on a laptop in lectures results in better test scores.

Taking notes by hand is considered deep processing because students are making decisions about what to include and what to leave out. They are also able to link things together using diagrams, arrows, etc.

Taking notes on a laptop is considered shallow processing because students are able to write everything down, if they are a fast typer. There’s no need to make decisions or engage meaningfully with the information – they can copy it down verbatim.Shallow vs. Deep Processing

So, what are the results? Well, when it comes to factual knowledge (this is Achieved level stuff, remember), both types of note takers do equally well. But as you can see in the graph, this changes dramatically when it comes to conceptual knowledge. The test results of shallow processers (the people using a laptop) take a nosedive. On the other hand, those who take notes by hand and therefore process the information more deeply, do very well in tests of conceptual knowledge.

What does this mean for my child? 

This is particularly relevant for NCEA, because factual versus conceptual understanding is essentially what the whole system is based on. Therefore, we need to be helping students develop study strategies that involve deep processing if we want to see them move beyond Achieved.

Is English Essentially a Class on Deep Processing?

English is an interesting subject to teach. Often students who hate the subject will say very similar things to students who love it. Most often, “There’s no one right answer!”, said either in exasperation or elation. They either find the ambiguity comforting or crazy-making.

When taught well, English basically teaches students deep processing. There are very few straight facts to learn – once you know what metaphors, assonance and all the other language features are, it’s pretty much all conceptual from there on in.

It’s about learning how to analyse something. Pulling something apart and seeing what makes it work. Or zooming out and understanding the whole that is formed by all of the smaller pieces.

It’s about understanding context and making connections between things. It’s seeing something not as isolated, but as happening in connection with a whole lot of other things.

In short, it’s deep processing.

Applying the Skills Learnt in English Elsewhere

Years after leaving school, I went and bought the books I studied in English, because they never quite left me. Now, I understand that not every student has this kind of love affair with the subject. That’s fine.

But the skills we teach in English are essential to doing well in all subjects. This is especially true given how NCEA is built.

This can be a way of making the subject relevant to a student who doesn’t otherwise see the point, but wants to do well in Science or Maths or something else.

Or it can be a starting point for coming up with some study strategies that elevate a student from an Achieved level to a Merit or Excellence in other subjects.

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