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Teaching for the IO or teaching with the IO?

By Dr. Anna Androulaki-Woodcock, AA Educational Consultancy, Wiltshire, United Kingdom

The IB Internal Assessment (IA) feedback has just been shared with Language A teachers, and it has been met with responses ranging from agreement to complete bafflement. Personally, I have decided to practise as much detachment as possible so I can address some of the issues the task raises for students and teachers as provocations which require contemplation rather than an inadequacy of students and/or teachers. I think this is fair and right considering IB assessment is not norm-referencing and the relationship of IB teachers to the IB is that of professional accountability.

Despite the surprises of the results for some and the continuous search of lost lesson time, the task has been welcomed by teachers as a constructive move away from the old IOC, and students, overall, seem to be responding pretty well to a complex task which is also strictly timed. There seem to be a lot of formulas out there and practical tips about organisation, structure, timing, formulation of GIs, etc. I know I have authored a few of mine. Some of these are more helpful than others. Some are verging on the formulaic more than others. Some read more like instruction manuals than teaching protocols. This advice serves a purpose, that of completing the task, but it can also be a distraction from the real questions in our classrooms: what are our students learning and how? Are we teaching them the ‘what-to-do’ as opposed to the ‘how-to-do’?

What I would like to propose is that we consider whether we need these formulas and recipes in the very final stages of the IO, for the more mechanical and technical aspects of the final product, in the same way we edit a piece of writing for line spacing, indentation, etc., after it has been written. Instead, we must focus more on the processes that can make the IO an experience integrated in student learning, not task execution. The reason I suggest this is that formulas and repeated practice and drills may – just may – help students get good grades, but investing in the mental and cognitive processes of abstraction and theorizing that the task requires of students will produce learning, and that can make it possible for every student to complete the task in a confident and rewarding way. Not to mention the benefits of such transferable knowledge for the course, in other subjects and beyond. In other words, before we start looking at the minutes and the marks and the moderation algorithms, we must rewind and begin at the beginning. Which practices and approaches can support the development of competencies students need to not only complete the IO but to do so in a manner that benefits their learning?

1. Foster a connection with texts. Emotion is the way into literary exploration for any reader or any age, and we must help students articulate their emotional response on their way to justifying it, analysing it and explaining it. If they are to talk about issues relevant to local and/or global contexts of which they have direct or indirect knowledge, how can this be done without a personal connection with the works exploring these issues? Our assumptions and assessment-driven practices push us to jump into the analysis of the text and the practice of ‘skills’ making the discussion exclusively text-centred, leaving the reader (student) stranded on an island of miscomprehension. Personal response has often been interpreted by students – and possibly teachers – as totally reader-centred with little or no connection to the text. It is not surprising then that “personal response” does not feature in the new Subject Guides, but instead the focus is on the agency of students as readers (see Readers, writers and texts Area of Exploration). What I am proposing is to honour the students as agents of the reading by creating more opportunities for a student to respond as a person to a text. This can be done in small groups, in collaborative app spaces or in short pieces of writing that are more like the personal essay rather than any of the IB assessments to build a bridge from personal writing to the formal essay (Moffett 1989). In fact, the constructivist approach students are required to employ in all their IB assessments calls for exactly that; the personal essay (or all kinds of personal writing) can constitute the space where students can find agency as constructors of meaning.

2. Value reading. This may seem like a very obvious statement. Students will have to read in order to respond to texts, identify issues to discuss, explore the way authors use language to create meaning. Yet, we are not always aware of how they engage with the texts in that very first encounter. Are they reading for comprehension of facts and events? Are they reading to summarise? Are they reading to identify key passages for assessments? If these questions constitute more or less the repertoire of our approaches to reading, then students can be said to read the texts for use rather for engagement. However, it is precisely this engagement which will allow our students to become more competent readers and develop the habits of mind of highly literate readers (Blau, 2003) with all the implications such competence has for them as IB learners but also assessment candidates. Direct instruction opposes such competence, and could also be said to encourage the practice of a more mechanistic delivery. The exploration of issues literary works concern themselves with can only begin with reading that is immersive (Bruns 2011) rather than a right-answer approach or the teaching of a set of critical practices by the teacher.

3. Understanding how we understand and explore the issue. The IO is asking the students to think conceptually while making factual connections with the texts and the extracts. This negotiation of the ways the specific can be linked to the abstract and the converse is an everyday mental process for young adults, but one they are quite likely not asked to observe or verbalise anywhere else. Students are able to create ‘theories’ about everyday activities and ordinary things, from the video games they play to the way they dress. It is inductive thinking. In this sense, the task does not require them to learn a new skill but to extend this skill to include literary texts and the articulation of a ‘theory’ derived from these texts. Ironically, writing may be the best starting point in their attempt to become more aware and intentional about their conceptual understanding of these issues for their IO. Writing affords them more time to process their thinking and it is personal and reflective. How can we use writing activities which will make it possible for students to connect an example (extract) to a generalisation (whole text) to the theory (global issue). Imagine, for example, giving students different extracts and asking them to respond to them in a short piece of informal writing, then bringing them together to discuss their responses and invite others to comment on them before they are asked to create a ‘theory’ (a global issue and, possibly, an argument about it) that would explain these interpretations. The extracts can be from the same work or from different works and the sharing of the responses and the comments can be done in class before students formulate a theory they all agree on. One can actually ask the students to think abstractly and give them keywords, prompts or sentence structures. Or one can lead students to an understanding of how they think abstractly. The difference is between teaching the ‘what’ as opposed to the ‘how-to’ so the IO does not represent knowledge but a way of knowing, which they can then use and apply to other processes and other assessments.

What my experience as a teacher and a workshop leader has taught me about the IO is that we tend to compartmentalise it because of its unique nature and structure. All the other assessments in Language A involve writing and some good old-style textual analysis. This compartmentalisation is contrary to how students learn and how the curriculum has been designed, and so it is to be expected that the IO is seen by many students and teachers as an obstacle, rather than an opportunity. This opportunity is cognitive, social and metacognitive; this is such stuff as learning is made on.


Blau, Sheridan. 2003. “Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers”. Voices from the Middle, Volume 10 Number 3.

Bruns, Cristina V. 2011. “Immersion, Transformation and the Literature Class”. The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning.

Volume 17 Winter 2011-2012.

Moffett, James. 1989. “Bridges: From personal Writing to Formal Essay”. [1] The misunderstanding of reader-response as a text meaning anything the reader wants it to mean may be responsible for creating some prejudice against personal responses by students, but this is a discussion for another piece. [2] Not surprisingly, there are three instances of the word “engagement” in the May 2022 Subject Report for Literature and they all appear in the IA section. The Language and Literature May 2022 Subject Report stresses “personal interpretation” with two instances of it in the IA section. While these terms may be interpreted slightly differently, they both reference the importance of student agency.

Dr. Anna Androulaki-Woodcock has been teaching IB English since 2002 and has been leading IB workshops for Language A for fifteen years. Her perspective has been shaped by teaching in very different and diverse contexts in Greece, Germany, the UK and China. The administrative positions she has held, viz. those of Diploma Programme Coordinator and Head of English, inform her understanding of contextual and pedagogical implications for the teaching of English for both students and teachers. Dr. Anna Androulaki-Woodcock has a passion for reading, for learning that defies expectations and curricula, for asking questions as well as for strategic thinking for educational institutions. She is the author of several academic papers in theoretical linguistics (the area of her PhD dissertation), the Oxford University Press English A: Literature IB Prepared following and the Course Companion of the same subject. Her experience from working at residential schools has enhanced her awareness of the impact of holistic education on teaching and lifelong learning. She can be reached at

Editor's note: This story was featured in our 2023 ICTE fall newsletter. Click here to see the entire issue.


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