Using Physics Questions to Build Problem Solving, Literacy and Knowledge.

A few weeks ago I observed an English teacher pull a sentence apart. A line from Romeo and Juliette was on the board and the class spent ten minutes together identifying the parts of speech (verb/noun/particle etc); the effect of words on the reader (to connote is a verb – I didn’t know that) and language techniques (repetition, alliteration, rhyme, personification etc). They marked it all up on the board. The students were practising marking-up the same sentence on paper (board=paper from Teach Like a Champion 2.0).

I thought it was like looking at a diagram goal free . Without worrying about the question at first, students were laying down all of the information they could about the line.

Then, as a class, they began to add the context. The result was an exploded sentence, with all of the bones exposed.

They answered questions about the line.

I wondered whether I could do something similar with a physics sentence – specifically an exam question. Instead of looking at the language techniques, I would pull apart the vocabulary and knowledge.

So I took some exam papers and chose a couple of questions to try.

The first obvious thing is that for GCSE physics questions (especially higher tier), single sentence questions are rare. Also, many questions have diagrams:

So I split the task into several parts. First, we went ‘goal-free’ on the diagram, which took 5 minutes using a think-pair-share.

goal-free 1-page-001
Goal-Free exploration of the diagram using Think-Pair-Share activity

(AQA Physics Unit 1 June 2016)

We did a mini control-the-game (Reading Reconsidered) on the opening line (you can see the mark-up we did on vacuum below).

Finally, we got to the close-reading of the question line. I think the student’s marked-up sheet explains what we did as well as I could write it. It was a collaborative effort – I asked students to do this in pairs and then we shared. I was modelling on the board.

Then they answered the question.

kettle close-read-page-001
A close-read of the question followed by a write/rewrite (see TLaC and Reading Reconsidered by Lemov)

We shared and read the mark scheme and the students did a rewrite.

The whole task took 20 minutes, which is a big investment for one question. But I recommend doing it regularly because it does three things:

  1. It exposes students to both technical and non-specialist vocabulary, in a physics context, over and over again. You don’t need to plan and track the high mileage non-specialist words – they come up naturally. Technical words are also experienced, in context, over and over again, building understanding.
  2. It teaches student how to read a question.
  3. It teaches students how to write a good answer.

This sequence is an effective and simple way to develop literacy in physics lessons. It does several jobs pretty well. With practice, you might be able to get the whole sequence down to 10/15 minutes – but I’m not there yet. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else tries it or does something similar.




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