You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 57 - and the unexpected way that your teen can increase their marks by writing less: by shortening the quotes that they reference in essays and assignments in order to show that they can be discerning in their selection of evidence.
Hello Very Important Parents! I hope you’re doing great and I hope that the weather is amazing with you as it is with me right now. Unless you’re one of those crazy people who tell me they love the cold and being able to rug up. Just joking. I do get that it’s nice to cosy up sometimes, but I am just in love with the Queensland winter sun at the moment. As of when I’m recording this, we’ve had I think 14 days of straight sunshine around 23, 24 degrees. I know the weather has been amazing, but I only know the 14 days bit, because we got solar panels a couple of years ago and my husband is obsessed with the app that tracks all the stats and seeing how many kilowatts we’ve generated each day. He’s not quite the numbers person I am but he’s totally hooked on that and I have to admit that it does make me love him just a little bit more. Almost as much as I love the sunshine and the novelty of having beautiful winter days has not worn off yet as an Englander. I don’t think it ever will and I like that and will always feel grateful for it. But enough talk about the weather - the English-ness is clearly still there in me - talking about the weather all the time.
Today I want to talk to you about a really simple yet sometimes tricky skill when it comes to using quotes in essays, inquiries and assignments. It’s especially valuable in English, but it’s also useful to consider in other subjects as well, yes, including Science.
It’s the skill of shortening quotations. Sounds like such a simple little thing, and in some ways it is, so I want to share why it’s an important skill and I’ll also give a couple of examples so you can see how you can support your teen to do it effectively in their study. And if you find this episode helpful, then I want to let you know that I’ve purposefully made it to follow on really nicely from last week’s episode - how your teen can be succinct yet still sophisticated in their writing and in fact, being sophisticated actually REQUIRES them to be succinct. Putting a point across in less words does not make it more basic, and in fact, when done in a high quality way, less words actually increases clarity and shows more skill. Which is the common theme here - that using, or in the case of quotations, selecting less words actually requires more skill and can show greater knowledge and understanding.
A short quote does not mean the point that’s being made is simple, or the quality of the evidence is more basic. But, in fact, can actually be seen as proof of a more discerning selection of evidence. And discerning is one of those descriptor words that is often used at the higher levels of mark schemes and success criteria. And I do want to make clear that this is a very picky tip. This is definitely a strategy for the more advanced students who are already working at the higher level criteria and grade descriptors. There are other things that will make a bigger difference to writing that’s at the C grade level. But if your teen is operating at at least a high B grade and above, then this could be relevant and is something that maybe you could point out for them if they ever ask you to proofread an essay or assignment.
So, let’s look at the nitty gritty evidence as to how shortening quotes can actually get your teen more marks. This being just one of the more marks with less words strategies I love to train students in.
I’m going to use the same real life exam paper that I used in the last episode so that if you do decide to go find it, you can see all of this in action, with just one download.
It’s the 2022 HSC Advanced English paper and I’ll put the direct link to it in the show notes for you.
I’ve been sharing this because it was one of the exemplars I used in the special Next Level Event I ran recently called How to Hit the Top Criteria in Extended Responses. So if your teen is IN Next Level, even if they weren’t a member then, but are now, then they have access to the whole recording and the workbook resource for that event in the member area. And if they aren’t in Next Level and they’d love to do detailed work on strategies like this, and they have completed the 10 Week Grade Transformation Program, then look out for our Semester 2 Next Level enrolment coming up late July. They get instant access to all of my programs, trainings and events - both recorded and I’ll be running a brand new event in August which they’ll obviously then have a ticket to and of course we have all of the detailed coaching and personal feedback and support.
So, here are the descriptors from a 6 mark extended response question, and I’m just going to cover the descriptors from 4 marks upwards, because I know that’s at least where most students are at least aiming. And I’m just going to read out the part of each descriptor that relates to the use of quotes or specific references to the text.
So, for 4 marks, it says they must have ‘supporting evidence’.
For 5 marks, it has to be ‘well-chosen supporting evidence’.
And for 6 marks, it says ‘detailed, well-selected supporting evidence’.
So, what is the actual difference between detailed, well selected, vs well chosen, vs just having supporting evidence?
This is what I think many students struggle with. I think we can all get that the wording of those descriptors does increase in terms of demands, but actually, what does that look like? What makes something well-selected? And I agree, it is difficult to discern that. And that’s where years and years of using and applying these descriptors across multiple exam boards and different states and countries, and marking tens of thousands of papers does for you. It helps you figure that out.
As a student, and as a parent, not having that experience and all of those real life examples of what it does and doesn’t look like can definitely make things feel more like a guessing game. And that’s what really one of my main aims is to do for parents and students. Remove, or at least reduce the guesswork - the hand in and hope. So although there’s no way I can get into ALL of that on a podcast episode, I will share a few pointers that I hope will be helpful.
Notably, I think in that top descriptor, the word ‘detailed’ is what can trip students up. It can lead them to think that more is more: that detailed means more words, more evidence. And that isn’t the case. Detailed is about the quality and level, just like a more detailed analysis is not just about giving more descriptive info. And for me, in my experience overall, I would define well-chosen as being that it fits the point being made. Well-chosen is relevant and well-fitting. Whereas ‘detailed, well-selected’ means that it not only is relevant, but is also one of the best pieces if not the best piece of evidence out of all the possibilities, to enable high quality analysis in relation to the point being made. AND well-selected also means that it has indeed been selected. Certain words have been plucked out as being the most important or significant. So your teen doesn’t include the whole sentence, they quote just the three or four words that are the crux of the matter being discussed. Sometimes it might literally be ONE word. They extract the exact word or phrase that supports the point.
Because being able to identify exactly what that word or phrase is what SHOWS an in-depth knowledge and understanding. It shows the marker that your teen is discerning in their selection.
Often the way I’ll coach a student to help them do this, and something you could use with your teen too, is by saying “if you could only keep half that quote, what would you keep?”
This forces them to select the most meaningful words and really makes them consider the key point they’re making. Often, I don’t personally know the text or know much about the topic they’re writing about, but I’ll still get a good idea myself of which part they should then be choosing by reading the explanation and analysis that follows. I can tell from that what part will best support their point or argument.
That’s where I really love this stuff. Because, for me, as a student - and even as a teacher if I’m honest, being told - there aren’t any right or wrong answers might be ‘true’ in the bigger picture, but when it comes to the actual writing and using the most fitting evidence to support the thesis your teen has written or support the response they’re writing or point they’re making, there is right and wrong or ‘adequate’ vs best-fitting evidence.
Different quotes will be right for different points, so there is no one right quote for an essay that could have a variety of responses. And yes there may be two or three ‘best-choice’ quotes for a particular point. But,the quote or evidence does have to exactly match the point that’s being made. And as we can see from those mark scheme descriptors, there is a scale of okay, better, best. There’s wrong - if the quote just doesn’t match up, and then there’s not just right… there are scales of ‘right’: okay... better... and best fit.
I’ll give you an example from a recent task I coached a student on last week.
It was an analytical task where they had to discuss the concept of the American Dream within the Great Gatsby and another text. Now, I’ve never studied or even read the Great Gatsby nor the other text either, but I was still able to help and give feedback from the strategy perspective, from the exam marker’s perspective.
One of their paragraphs was about how going after success and the American Dream could erode one’s morals and ethics, and they had actually already shortened the quote they used to support this with an ellipsis. I’ll read out the quotation, just so you can see how they then made it more selective.
The quote was:
"This desolate area of land is plagued by ashes, which grow like wheat into ridges and hills… taking the form of men who move dimly and are already crumbling through the powdery air".
I asked the student which part they would choose if they could only keep half that quote. Well, what I actually asked them was - what do you think I’m going to say about that quote?
Because they’ve worked with me and Gemma for a while now in Next Level.
And because they are attentive they correctly answered with ‘shorten it’- in itself was a happily short and succinct reply and totally nailed the key point. So that’s a nice little meta example. But anyway, they re-read it - AND importantly re-read their whole paragraph in order to make a well-chosen selection and they selected the second half, which I was really happy that they did, because even as a non-expert in the text, I could tell that
“taking the form of men who move dimly and are already crumbling through the powdery air”
was more suited to the point about people and their crumbling ethics and values. And right now, I would even offer that just the words “men who move dimly” or “already crumbling” would be even more direct and discerning choices and also allows analysis of the vocabulary used by the author like ‘dimly’ and ‘crumbling’.
This is where coaching can be so valuable. Not being told what to write or what to cut, but having guiding questions to help your teen make these deductions and reasoning for themselves, to support them in making improvements along with the explanations of WHY and HOW they relate to the mark scheme.
So, shortening quotes is a relatively simple concept, but requires skill to do and requires excellent knowledge and understanding of the text, which is why it’s rewarded at the top levels of criteria. Of course, it’s not enough to just have minimalist quotes and evidence, they need to be well-chosen and of course they also need to be analysed in a sophisticated and detailed way. But it is one of the ways your teen can up-level their essay, inquiry or report and get more marks with relatively little extra effort. And you know that I’m all about maximum results for effort.
Talking of effort, you probably already know that I put a ton of time and effort into each episode - more than I would like to admit if I’m honest. So if you have found even one episode helpful or useful, and would be willing to spend 20 seconds of time and effort to leave a rating - and - fun fact - it takes the same amount of effort to tap 5 stars as any of the other star ratings on the podcast app you use, that would be amazing. I would really appreciate it. There is no other way to raise the profile of the podcast other than playing the rating and review algorithms at their own game and I can’t do that without you, my wonderful VIP listener.
And while you’re leaving a rating, if you could jot in just a few words for a review, I’ll love you even more than I already do just for listening. And to show my love and appreciation, if you send me a screenshot of your rating and review to email@example.com, I’ll send you my Topic and Focus - Essay Title Swipe File for your teen. Plus, I’ll include my detailed walkthrough video with it too. It will forever change how your teen tackles an essay in any subject.
It’s been awesome hanging out with you and I’ll see you back here next week.