Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Using Concept Mapping as a Strategy to Improve Essay Structure

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Using Concept Mapping as a Strategy to Improve Essay Structure

Article excerpt

The context

In this Practical Strategies section, I explain a process aimed at improving the structure of Year 10 students' subject English essays. My students are enrolled in the Queensland Academy for Creative Industries, a selective State High School. Apart from adhering to Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority's (ACARA) Year 10 English Syllabus requirements, the process anticipates guidelines established for the International Baccalaureate Years 11 and 12 Subject English A Literature. There, value and emphasis are placed on writing an in-depth literary criticism essay. The focus in Year 10 English, then, is on preparation for this exacting task.

My decision to use a graphic organiser as a strategy to support students in developing their conceptual thinking about a literary text reflected my confidence and experience in using learning strategies of this kind. Also, a colleague whose doctoral research had centred on concept mapping to scaffold conceptual thinking, influenced my choice. Further, the Academy's pedagogical framework highlighted the use of graphic organisers as learning tools.

All students had access to the Inspiration software on their Apple laptops. However, one limitation was that students tended to see the mindmap/wordmap and concept map as being the same tool, partly because of easy access to Inspiration software. Both are graphic organisers that can represent knowledge in a visual mapping exercise, such that the relationships between ideas are identified. However, the concept map challenges students to be involved in more meaningful learning because it requires the articulation of relationships between concepts. Novak and Canas (2008) describe the strategy as a tool for representing and organising knowledge, with concepts circled and connected to each other by lines on which words or phrases are written to label the relationship between the concepts. Plotnick (1997) suggests that the labels may show temporal or causal relationships. Thus, the construction of a concept map stimulates active learning and cognitive processing. This is, most importantly, visible evidence of student learning that a teacher can use to evaluate and adapt or improve his/her pedagogy.

A further complication was the Year 10 students' varying backgrounds and feeder schools. While most were generally familiar with essay writing (some having been trained in persuasive essay writing for Queensland NAPLAN), initial questioning of the cohort indicated that most used dot points to plan paragraphs. None admitted to familiarity with either the concept map when it was demonstrated, or to knowing how to very deliberately construct what Novak and Canas (2008) term propositions--meaningful statements in sentence form showing concepts joined by labelled lines. (These propositions would be key points in the essay's argument and function as guiding topics within the essay.) Neither was there evidence that students were familiar with the idea of 'argument' being critical to writing an academic text.

The following account of an intervention process is presented in two sections. The first is an overview of relevant theory underpinning the strategy. The second is a detailed account of the pedagogy adopted to enable students to know 'how' to construct a concept map that demonstrated conceptual understanding of a piece of literature. That is, the 'doing' of the concept map was seen to demonstrate deep understanding or 'insight' (Perkins, 1991, pp. 4-5), presented as an argument evidenced in propositions and justification of text references. The propositions were intended to provide a structure for the argument developed in the essay. Further, it was assumed that the approach taken to constructing the concept map represented a customised approach to the process of satisfying the schoolspecific demands of academic writing.

Overview of theory underpinning the strategy's implementation

Theorists who promote the concept map as a learning strategy (Dabbagh, 2001; Mayer, 2010; Nesbit & Adesope, 2006; Novak & Canas, 2008; Wittrock, 2010) agree that it exemplifies generative learning characterised by either integrating existing knowledge with new knowledge or reorganising information in a mental representation. …

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