Should English teachers ban the word ‘technique’ to improve students’ engagement with texts? 

I was chatting with Tanya, my good friend and head teacher of English at my old school (and super amazing clever human), last Friday night about the word ‘technique’ to cover ALL literary devices known to man. We were hanging out and geeking out about the new HSC English syllabuses – which we are both equally stoked with, but more on that in another post – and as we were chatting I mentioned that the new syllabuses, just like the old ones, never once refer to the term ‘techniques’. It’s not in the glossary, it’s not in the rationale, it’s not in the objectives, outcomes or content, it’s not in the module descriptors. Odd, considering it is the go-to word for English teachers when discussing textual analysis. Or, is it? Tanya has all but banned the word. She’s always hated it – preferring to refer to use the language of the syllabuses – language forms and features. This really struck me as an important, um, stylistic choice? Given that last year her year 12 class blitzed the HSC (she will hate me saying this) in a school were historically few students get top English results.

As we chatted we tried to identify when the word ‘technique’ crept into the English teacher lexicon – I feel it was earlyish in my teaching career – maybe a couple of years in, around 2007? Maybe it was the introduction of the words ‘texts’ and ‘composers’ as nondescript references in the last HSC syllabus? Maybe we didn’t feel confident with the phrase ‘language forms and features’ (even now as I type it I’m sure I’ve got it wrong)? I do know that it has become super problematic in the way I teach texts. Students are always asking me ‘What technique is in this quote?’ and I blame myself because I am the one creating formulas and acronyms (ITEE, STEEL, STEW etc) for essays and sentences that require the dreaded T – techniques.

In our chat we both realised the time we first really focused on techniques as mandatory for all essay paragraphs was at the HSC marking centre. We thought it amusing, and kind of weird, that our marker colleagues (including our SMs) constantly referred to techniques – how many, the quality, how well they were discussed/analysed – and yet the marking criteria we were using, didn’t refer to the word ‘technique’. Well, maybe it did sometimes like ‘dramatic techniques’? Even then kids still referred to metaphors – and not metaphor as the BIG type, the small ‘put your finger on the metaphor’ type. Teachers (me included) refer to language techniques, persuasive techniques, dramatic techniques, poetry techniques, film techniques, etc. so it makes sense we would use ‘techniques’ as an all-encompassing term, BUT the problem is when (teacher like me) tell students that every sentence in their body paragraphs must have a technique in it – that you can’t have a quote unless you analyse it – we really start to experience the tyranny of the technique. The essay becomes boring, like a shopping list of single-use ‘techniques’ that doesn’t allow an idea to develop or a personal voice to be heard. We can blame the HSC, but really the expectations set THERE are set by US, I truly believe that.

So, having spoken with my lovely friend, and hearing how she has not only banned the word technique, but also banned essay formulas, it makes me question my own practice. Given the fact that we have the opportunity to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the technique AND the formulaic essay, with this new (awesome) HSC with its incredible focus on creativity, authenticity, and genuine engagement with literature, I wonder if we will. Will you?

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14 thoughts on “Should English teachers ban the word ‘technique’ to improve students’ engagement with texts? 

  1. Really interesting. I definitely use the acronyms you mentioned, and the word technique, for my junior classes, but lately have stopped using the word technique in Year 11 Advanced English – only ever use “textual form and features”. Also moved away from the acronyms for my selective Year 10 class.
    However, I feel they both have a place for the junior classes and certain students. It isn’t just an ability thing. I find a lot of my students can function well with formulas and they can tick things off if they know what formula to follow. It is a bit rigid and does not flow as well, but helps them build that foundation for later.

  2. I struggle with the use of scaffolds like TXXXC. PETAL etc. for the same reason. It has started to feel like we are assessing a learners ability to write within the structure, not necessarily their understanding of a text or the question around it. I’ve always thought that capable writers are being limited by enforcing a scaffold however, learners who struggle more with writing do tend to write more by using a scaffold to support their writing. I’ve tried to stick to using them as scaffolds and once learners become more capable encourage them to use it as a check list. I agree that teaching writing to a scaffold disengages and often intimidates learners from just having a go at putting their understanding down in words. I’ve never thought of the word “technique” having the same effect. But reflecting on it, it does have the same effect.

  3. I like “language forms and features” too even though students and even teachers often use both terms in that phrase as synonyms. As for banning essay formulas because they are a dead hand on originality, I have to agree. The current situation is sclerotic. How to liberate student formal responses while keeping them analytical not summative?

  4. Using the word ‘technique’ (I think) just leads to a game of ‘spot the technique’ rather than deep thinking about what it is actually doing. I had a colleague once tell students to eliminate the word technique from their own discussion and analysis. In doing so they find themselves forced to use a verb when discussing any techniques, devices etc. etc. which then leads to greater engagement with what effect is achieved. Seemed a good tip that worked quite well.

  5. Unless a student is very gifted following the “formulas” is the way to maximise results. The syllabus does not reward or even encourage authentic deep engagement with the texts so it should be no surprise that success in examinations follows formulaic approaches. Is it not also past time we stop pretending that there is a set syllabus when the reality is that prescription lists and examination comments have been used to continually change the “syllabus” as it is taught and examined on multiple occasions.

    • I agree, teaching a formulaic approach to writing is the goto for stufents who a. have not engaged fully b. lack the cutltural capital for deep analysis c. are cramming to make it across the line & d. because essay writing is not a natural form of expression in itself.
      Students can be les tonwater, but you cannot make them drink. Pointing to the markers if an essay that they can tangibly equate provides students with a sense of certainty.
      That said, I also agree that on the other side of the coin to advance engagement fir learners with all our dreamed of qualities, they need to be unchained from the acronymns.

  6. Thanks Blanca for some thoughtful words. I heartily agree. If students (and teachers – yes even those who head up the marking centre) really looked at developing students’ responses to the specific module/AoS and its rubric, we’d lose the death by technique essays we all hate reading. Students need to be taught how to develop engaging, broad theses for their responses (not just a thesis statement) which encapsulates their understanding of the specific question asked of them. Then their analysis of any text would be relevant, engaging and accurately discuss not only the composers’ use of form and features, but, more importantly, the students’ own understanding and reaction to the text.

    Students should be able to answer an essay question with a comprehensive thesis statement which is then proved through the discusssion of context, purpose, audience, form and features. All, notvjust one.

    Too often students are taught that techniques are the be all and and all. Actually, they’re the icing on what should be a rich, sweet, tantalising, engaging, unputfownable, full-bodied, foundational cake.

    Yes. Puh-leease can we ban the word technique and reference both the old and new syllabus in an authentic, relevant, tutor free-shorthand formula-free approach they both should have, and do, deserve?

    Did somebody say cake?

  7. My students love having a formula for extended writing as it allows them to respond in a structured, meaningful manner. I use a modified version of ALARM for all of my classes and my students’ results on the HSC have improved dramatically since my implementation of ALARM. Of course I always have a few gifted students who move beyond the formula but for the majority this approach works well. As for the word technique I don’t see an issue with it but in my writing scaffold/formula of CLACEL I tell the students to include ‘A’ which stands for analysis and that includes the identification of techniques but it is also about finding meaning through the language forms and features present. My students and colleagues are very pleased with the formula we have developed and we will continue to use it in the future.

  8. I totally agree. I never used the word “technique” before I became a teacher and I believe it does not encompass all language forms and features. Students forget that they can discuss the relevance of choosing a sonnet form, or the choice in pronouns, verbs, etc. It, with essay scaffolds, are restrictive. I even have a problem with the “put in three quotes” in each paragraph. It is too formulaic. Sometimes one quote analysed exceptionally well is better than three thrown in to meet the formula. I even take issue with the formula of “three points”. This is because I was taught at uni that if it is only a 1200 word essay you don’t have the room to argue more than one point well. Like you, I am also really excited about the new syllabus.

  9. I hope I do stop using the word in that all encompassing way. But I also think there’s value in developing students’ understanding of the ingredients that go into a really well written essay – so where does that leave me with my precious PETEL acronym??? Excellent food for thought.

  10. Yes we should ban. School essays are not engaging writing for the most part so we shouldn’t be teaching skills students can’t really use. The best writing on film that I have ever read is Helen Garner’s review of Flight 91. Not a technique in sight. I’m bored to death of the PEEL and want to see it abolished in favour of some deep engagement and original ideas

  11. I agree with the argument, along with those in comments, and will certainly be more consciously avoiding shorthand in future. I think the origins lie in the text-type focus from the late ’90s – a great way to analyse texts, but a creativity numbing way to compose them.
    Having said that, I believe (as with all things) so much depends upon the nature, ambition and abilities of our students. No doubt “language forms and features” allows students to broaden their response and understanding beyond ‘spot the metaphor’. But … in lots of cases (most?) we are keen (and even relieved) to see students at least meet the mid-range “sound” band, and the idea of technique helps with that. I’d also argue that using the word “technique” links to agency – although I’d never explain it that way to students. It reminds students that such things (aka language forms and features) are not accidental, but are, (no matter what the composer says in interviews etc to deny it!) deliberate and conscious choices on the part of the composer. We use the word in that sense in every other context – batting technique; cooking technique; sexual technique etc, etc.
    As for essay writing acronyms, they do help students ‘play by the rules’. I don’t like them, but I see (increasingly) that they provide a safety net for students – particularly those who fear the risk-taking that creativity and self-expression present when faced with an assessment mark, rank and ATAR.

  12. I’m with Tanya on this. But I went straight into a school that spoke ‘forms and features’ so it was very normalised in 7-12. Here’s a mind bender though: in other states (?) I’ve seen reference instead to ‘codes and conventions’. It’s that the same as forms and features? If anyone knows, please share! My current theory is that both sets have 2/3 of the things you need to understand text in context. Like…codes = language (written, visual etc) and maybe forms = genre. But what are ‘features’? Is they related to register?

    Pls NSW friends to learn functional approach to language so we can nerd out with common text-context terms kthxbi!

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