CELFS Teaching and Learning Network

Fish-bones & Flesh: developing critical thinking skills through structured planning, drafting and editing

by Katherine High

Fish skeleton

How can I help my post-grads improve coherence in their writing?” exclaimed a friend of mine who has recently moved into an academic teaching role. I began to sketch the outline of a fish-bone while asking her some questions, “so if the fish-bone represents an essay, what is the head?” She quickly understood each part of the skeleton – most importantly, that the backbone was the central argument. How many backbones should there be? Only one! But several key points / counter arguments, as represented by the horizontal bones. “Yes ok I get it now, the tail is the conclusion…fanning out to represent a future focus.” I first learnt about the fish-bone during a BITE to EAP (in-housing training session) with Maxine, and have been using it this year to help learners plan a coherent line of argument, whether it is for written work or presentations.

This year my foundation students have found this visual learning aid to be incredibly useful when planning for their main written assessment: the CCR (Comparative Critical Review) where they had to analyse two sources by comparing specific criteria, such as credibility, content presentation, language and style. We had several fish-bone workshops, starting with the students labelling each part of the skeleton as my friend did above during my helpful interrogation. The students could then apply the fish-bone to their own planning, and review each other’s fish-bones, offering further guidance and a chance to reflect on their progress. Here is one of my student’s outlines in the early planning stage:

Ribena Fish

Further work may be required on each part of the fish-bone depending on the level of study. For example, with my foundation students we cut off the head and dissected it. Close analysis lead to some interesting comments: “the eye represents the thesis statement so the mouth must be the map”. My students then decided to invert the fish-head to reflect the model of a typical introduction as shown here in a post-graduate class:

Intro model

A memorable learning moment in the initial planning stage was when a student labelled one bone as “analysis” and another as “evaluation” rather than putting the key topic for discussion on each bone. I did not have to intervene as another class member shouted out, “NO! Analysis and evaluation should come under each bone. It is the FLESH on the bone!” As their assignments developed, the students could flesh-out their work – for example, the points identified on each bone soon transformed into highly effective topic sentences.

Moving up to post-graduate level, my students on the ALL (Academic Language & Literacy) for GSoE (Graduate School of Education) applied the fish-bone to their dissertation writing and found it equally valuable not only for organising their key sections but for thinking about the reflective process: here we could say that reflection and reflexion (where the writer reflects on his/her own impact on the research) really plays an integral part in each stage of their writing and, in fitting with our marine analogy, adds even more flesh to the bone, underpinning the recursive nature of the writing process.

This highly visual learning aid not only helps students improve their structure and organisation, but also their critical thinking skills as they transition through the process of planning, drafting and editing. On the pre-sessional, I’ll be creating an aquarium of fish for the main assessment tasks: Short Answer Questions (SAQs), Literature Reviews and presentations. And hopefully they’ll all be swimming confidently towards a top grade as they did last year.


Further reading:

Greenaway, L. (2010) Reflexivity – the researcher’s voice in qualitative research [online] Available at: http://www.evaluationservices.co.uk/43/Reflexivity-the-researcher039s-voice-qualitative-research/

[Accessed 26.5.15]

Harmer, J. (2004) How to teach Writing, Longman


6 Responses to “Fish-bones & Flesh: developing critical thinking skills through structured planning, drafting and editing”

  1. meahunt

    Love the analogy, Katherine. Shall be using it in my own studies.
    Looking forward to seeing your aquarium in the summer.


    • Katherine

      Definitely a whale skeleton Nick – analysis, evaluation and reflexion clearly represented by the blubber 🙂


  2. celfspresessional

    On the subject of coherence … the University of St Andrews annual EAP conference ‘Go with the Flow: Coherence and Cohesion in EAP Discourse’ will be held on Saturday 25th February 2017. Might be one for you, K?


  3. Clare

    Thank you for sharing this! I’m taeching an essay of cohesion and coherence in essay today, and am definitely going to try out this technique / analogy!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: