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‘Global Moves and Local Operations’ – Big Picture Thinking in English

What is 'Big Picture English' and why is it so important? Barbara Bleiman delves into the nature of English as a subject by exploring the implications of research into teaching 'global moves' and 'local operations'.
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In a fascinating piece of research published in May 2012, in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Wolsey, Lapp and Fisher undertook an enquiry into academic writing, exploring student and teacher perceptions and a possible gap between the two. Their focus was cross-curricular, rather than focused on the subject of English. Here’s how they describe the two aspects of academic writing:

Academic writing might be conceptualized in terms of global moves and local operations (Wolsey, 2010). Global moves include attention to the work of others. Such moves embrace working with discipline-specific content, summarizing others' contributions to the discourse, anticipating objections, and situating one's point-of-view within the work others have done.

Local operations, by contrast, demand the language user's knowledge of conventions such as word choice, use of discipline-specific terms, use of passive voice and choice of pronouns, or complex sentence construction.

What they discovered, in essence, was that teachers were teaching what they termed ‘local operations’ but were, in fact, valuing ‘global moves’. High performance in a subject was much more associated with global moves and less with local operations. They observed that students who assiduously concentrated on local operations were frustrated to discover that despite fulfilling all of these small procedural directives in relation to their writing, they were still being graded poorly by their teachers.

Why might the teachers have been focusing their pedagogic attention on the smaller things, rather than the aspects of writing that they really valued, deep down, and that emerged strongly in their grading? One key reason seems to be that the bigger, broader aspects of what makes for good writing in the subject were more intangible, less easy to pin down, more conceptual rather than procedural and therefore harder to teach. Teachers felt that they were working to develop students’ writing by focusing heavily on ‘local operations’ even when, ultimately, this was a lesser aspect of good writing in their subject.

Wolsey, Lapp and Fisher say:

Excessive attention to usage and mechanics can be counterproductive to students' understanding of global moves (Beach & Friedrich, 2006). Local operations do matter, but students struggle with local operations to convey meaning in contexts that require navigating the complex conceptual understandings that teachers value.

They also explore some fascinating issues around the question of how ‘apprentice’ writers either authentically take on the qualities of writing in the subject, developing ‘expertise in deep and meaningful ways’ or simply ‘replicate knowledge’ by mimicking the outward features of writing in the subject.

If all of this is true, it has profound implications for the way we work with students on their writing in English. It has chimed with some of our thinking about what’s happening in writing in English from KS3 through to A Level, so we’ve been using this research on CPD and in other contexts to explore the idea that we’re possibly placing too much attention on small aspects of writing, at the expense of deeper understandings about what it means to ‘do’ English and write well about texts in the subject discipline. In looking at two essays by students in an A Level exam, for example, one of which received a much higher grade than another, we’ve been able to unpick what really matters in writing in the subject. The one student wrote clearly, neatly and accurately, following all the procedural advice one might give to students about use of quotation, backing up evidence, correctly referring to events and characters and so on. This same student ticked all the boxes on mentioning contextual information, acknowledging the potential for different interpretations and so on but not in the ‘deep and meaningful’ ways described above. The other script was a much scrappier piece of writing, full of spelling mistakes, punctuation and other technical errors. Yet this second piece was awarded a higher mark by the examiners in the exam, and in several ‘outings’ in CPD sessions, most teachers have also decided, ultimately, that it deserved a higher mark than the more technically accurate and well written script. Why? Because it had good ideas about the text. Because it answered the question with insight. Because it drew on broader understandings – generic and contextual – in convincing and valid ways. In other words, because the ideas it expressed were more authentic, interesting and persuasive in relation to the text and demonstrated understanding of how we work on texts in the subject as a whole. Of course, this student needed to work on areas of weakness – his spelling, punctuation and lapses in his expression undoubtedly brought his mark down. However his good ideas were rewarded more highly than the emptier fluency of his classmate. It’s been reassuring to see that both the Awarding Body and most teachers we’ve worked with have been in full agreement about this, and it has implications for what we spend our time doing with students. The very committed, hard-working, good writer of the less convincing script needs to spend more time developing her ideas, subjecting them to scrutiny and finding ways of expressing them crisply, rather than focusing on the ‘local operations’ that she feels she needs to undertake to pass an exam. Fundamentally, she needs to write well in the subject, not focus on the small details of writing well for an examiner.

We’ve been using this local moves and global operations idea to explore with teachers what we actually mean by ‘global moves’ in our subject, in other words what it is that a critical essay, or a close reading, or a comparative piece of writing, or an analysis of a poem involves, within the discipline of English. This means thinking bigger and broader, talking about what the academic discipline of English is all about, looking at good examples of writing in the subject to see what they do, understanding the way in which personal insights can be examined and justified, recognising the role of contextual knowledge, rather than just performing an ‘operation’ with a bit of context.

Recently, I’ve begun to think that Wolsey’s idea of ‘global moves’ and ‘local operations’ has a much more extensive application to our current pedagogy and practices in the subject than I’d previously considered. It seems to me that, since the introduction of the Literacy Strategy, and the subsequent ongoing focus on lesson objectives, targets for improvement and levels, we have become fixated on ‘local operations’ in all aspects of the subject. The reasons are much the same as for writing. If you’re trying to ‘pin down’ things to teach, and what has been learnt, it’s so much easier to do that on local operations. You can give yes/no answers to whether a student has shown that they can use sentence punctuation in an end of term assessment, or whether they have identified a fronted adverbial, or noticed a metaphor, or used paragraphing or spelt a word correctly. It’s much harder to quantify the great idea they had about an extract from ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ that revealed to you something you’d never thought of before. Or to know how to assess the way in which a student has drawn on their own wider reading to make insightful comments about the way a particular text fits into a broader genre.

Local operations are important – of course they are. They need to be taught. Students who don’t punctuate, or paragraph, or set out quotations clearly and accurately on the page, or fail to correctly name poems or poets, or seem wobbly about the use of literary terms, need to fix that. They need to be taught these things and how to do these things. But if the focus of attention is exclusively on these, or even predominantly on them, then the more complicated global moves risk being forgotten.

Here’s a little example of how the global moves/local operations idea can extend well beyond academic writing. You’re starting to teach a novel at KS3. Let’s say it’s a Neil Gaiman novel. Local operations might be all the small things that are involved in that particular novel – the names of the characters, what they do in the novel, a chapter by chapter exploration of what happens, the identification of metaphors, a close look at some aspects of the language by homing in on individual words and phrases. You get to the end of the novel and ask the students what they remember about the novel. They can tell you the names of characters, what happened and a few particularly memorable aspects of language, in the close detail of the text. Local operations.

Let’s think what we might mean by global operations on that same novel. Can your students tell you about how novels work, how readers read, how people talk and write about texts, how genres operate and authors work within them, how this particular novel fits within its genre and what is most interesting about how it’s been written? Have they considered how YA fiction as a whole has grown up, changed and developed over time, so that this novel does what it does in the way that it does in this particular period? Do they understand why the choice of this text was made by you, what you’re hoping for them to get out of it, what additional pleasures and understandings might come from studying as an ‘expert’ student of literature, rather than just reading it as an ‘amateur’ reader? Do your students understand the idea of intertextuality, that all texts have echoes of other texts within them? Do they know how you can have some big overarching ideas about the text that are then worth justifying and verifying by going back in, to see if those ideas are true, and then perhaps finding new ideas as you do that, that take you in fresh directions?

The implications of this might be that, in studying that Neil Gaiman novel, these kinds of activities and angles would be worth pursing:

  1. Students might consider their prior reading (or watching), to share understandings about this before starting to read the novel, and then think about how Gaiman uses, adapts or subverts the genre in his writing. This understanding of texts in their generic context is a global move.
  2. Before reading the first chapter you might ask students to explore what they expect from a novel. This activates their broader knowledge and experience of what a novel is and gives them a springboard for making observations and judgements about the Gaiman novel.
  3. A student of literature goes beyond just reading and enjoying, to take a more ‘expert’, close, analytical look at how texts work and how they are read. It’s worth making this explicit to students. It’s a global move. So here, students might begin to think about how novels usually start, what ‘contract’ they set up with the reader in their first few lines, or first chapters, and how the playing on expectations works – through suspense, foreshadowing, new plot developments and so on. They might then look at the Gaiman opening in the light of this. What ‘contract’ does he set up with his reader? What expectations does it raise?
  4. What makes Gaiman’s writing (and this novel) unique, special, different from that of other writers you’ve read. What would you say to someone who’d not read it before, to distinguish it, say, from the writing of Mark Haddon in ‘Curious Incident’ or another YA writer?
  5. In introducing this text to other people who’ve not come across it before, what would you identify as being most significant about it, most special and different from other texts by other writers? Making judgements about information and ideas that are most relevant/least relevant, most interesting/least interesting is part and parcel of thinking about the defining features of texts.

Global moves and local operations are, of course, both important, but rather than imagining that the global comes automatically via the teaching of the local, I think I’d argue the other way around, that if we understand the big picture of what the subject entails, why we’re looking at texts in the way that we are, then we’ll be able to fit the detail into that bigger schema or mental picture. Conceptual understanding comes first, rather than the other way around, in order for the two to work in tandem with each other.

So, let’s re-evaluate what we’re doing in the light of this. Let’s think – as many teachers already are – about whether a few small learning objectives are really worthy of our attention at the start of each lesson, or whether longer term, bigger, more sustained and important objectives are what our subject is really about, despite the fact that they are less easy to prove that pupils have ‘done’ them and ‘learnt’ them in a simple, one-off moment of learning. Global moves are where success in the subject lies and we do our students a disservice if we pretend that they are not.


i. ‘Students' and Teachers' Perceptions: An Inquiry Into Academic Writing’, by Thomas DeVere Wolsey, Diane Lapp and Douglas Fisher. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 55, No. 8 (May 2012), pp. 714-724. Published by: Wiley on behalf of the International Literacy Association.


This is very interesting and chimes with my experience of teaching academic writing in University. Students are sometimes referred because, according to their tutors, they "can't write a sentence", "can't organise their work" and so on. What often transpires, however, is that they lack a larger picture of what the subject they are studying requires (its epistemology) and of the topic about which they are writing. When they realise that everything they have to say is situated within larger ideas that have been debated, in many cases, for generations, they suddenly grasp the significance of what they're doing. In simple terms, they learn to see the wood rather than the trees - and the wood includes the way in which academic discourse works. As it happens, I'm presenting a paper on this at BERA on the 13th of September! By John Hodgson on 02nd Sep 2018
Fascinating to see its relevance to academic writing at university too. I did a session for English Shared Futures last year with QMUL colleagues, where work on academic writing was also throwing up similar issues. I've noticed a few supportive comments on Twitter over the past few days from university colleagues retweeting the piece. In secondary English, the requirement to focus on small, measurable learning objectives and constant micro-assessment over the past few years seems to have fed into a 'trees' culture! By Barbara Bleiman on 05th Sep 2018

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