(Image credit: Jonathan Kim – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jkim1/452830868)
If a student can’t write, all eyes turn to the English department. Whether it is a brief in an Art lesson or a write up of a science experiment, if the writing isn’t up to standard then those deemed responsible for creating perfect prose-producers feel the heat.
There is major problem with this attitude: it is an over simplification of the job at hand. Teaching writing is a tricky business, so much so that after more than a decade as an English teacher I’m just about getting the hang of teaching it effectively. And that’s just the parts of writing for which I should be responsible. In truth, every subject leader has to take responsibility for teaching the writing that best fits their subject, be it evaluative writing in Science or the very different challenge of analytical writing in History. Each subject has its labyrinthine web of words and subtle generic structures.
So to create good writers we cannot just leave the English teachers to get on with it. We need to make each step of the writing process more visible for our students in every subject. We need to model skillful writing explicitly on a daily basis, in every subject area, unveiling the nuanced language choices and the many revisions and changes that make for successful writing.
Thankfully, research evidence can help guide us.
In their seminal research work, ‘A Meta-analysis of Writing Instruction for Adolescent Students’, Graham and Perin (2007), identified that specifically teaching students strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their writing was crucial in helping students become successful writers. It is too easy to assume that a proficient reader will automatically prove a good writer. Yes – both reading and writing draw from the same well-spring of background knowledge, but they remain considerably different skills. We therefore need to explicitly teach these three essential steps for great writing.
An excellent approach for writing strategies is the Self Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) approach. This provides a step-by-step writing process that has been shown to work successfully in a large Education Endowment Foundation trial conducted in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, across primary and secondary schools, as well as in multiple studies in America.
It follows the same typical steps. First, students develop their background knowledge through supported discussion around their writing genre. They then memorise the key information about the genre using mnemonic tools, like IPEELL: I= Introductory paragraph; P= Points; E = Examples/elaboration; E=End; L=Links (connectives, openers); L = Language (wow words, genre specific vocabulary, punctuation). The training wheels of such tools can be removed later as they become ingrained in the thinking of our students.
The third step is planning: students make use of graphic organisers, while setting themselves personal goals and charting their writing progress using self-scoring graphs (with some peer scoring along the way too).
The reason the SRSD process is so successful is that students need clear steps and constant guidance to write well and SRSD presents a tight structure to make this a reality.
It does this as the strategy draws upon the power of metacognition: that is to say our students’ ability to think hard about their own writing. Students need to be constantly considering the genre, audience and purpose of their writing, adapting their language choices at every moment. The weakest writers quickly speed through the task of writing with the minimum of hard thinking, leaving errors in their wake.
Another obvious and proven method to spark this all-important thinking is to get students talking. Collaborative writing in pairs can provide students with the opportunity to discuss their writing and make planning, revising and editing decisions. Peers don’t replace the teacher, who is at the heart of shaping the process, but paired writing allows for a great deal more feedback for individual students on their efforts. We need to structure and support such talk, righting any commons misconceptions, but fundamentally, we must harness the power of peers in planning writing, checking it and evaluating its impact.
Unfortunately, it is the natural state of the teen mind to resist planning and drafting: the essential actions that attend great writing. They are too busy saving their precious mental energy and rushing to the finish line. Spelling and punctuation be damned!
With my year 9 English class, I help them fight this instinctive urge by using the checklist memory aid of the ‘Super 6’ (capitalisation, spelling, discourse markers, range of punctuation, paragraphing, and powerful vocabulary) for all of the writing tasks. By now they can cite the checklist verbatim, but they still need reminding to use it, alongside some careful modeling.
Once the basics have been established, you can address style. Students’ writing can have a deadening and repetitive rhythm. It can lack life and complexity. We need to help students by modelling and piecing together sentences. Graham and Perin’s meta-analysis identifies ‘sentence combining’ as the key strategy for teaching students’ the grammar of great writing.
As I said earlier, all this has to be done by every teacher, not just those in the English department. Many teachers steer clear of the intricacies of teaching punctuation and grammar because they lack confidence, but all teachers must explicitly teach the nuanced rules of writing for their subject discipline. Once these rules are internalized, our students can move from imitation to innovation and invention.
One tip for would be to do fewer writing tasks, but doing them more deeply and more thoroughly: editing, revising and making considered improvements. To get students to deeply understand great writing we need to slow down the process and make these strategies for writing success visible and habitual.
To get you started, here are my three strategies for writing success:
Writing checklists: Like the mnemonics in the SRSD approach, or the ‘Super 6’ strategy I employ with my year 9 class, checklists are a simple but potent method to help students remember the strategies they need to deploy when writing. Such checklists can be devised by the teacher, or collaboratively as a group, or individually by the student. This can, and should, become a habit for each and every piece of writing undertaken by our students. They are free and easy to implement – and they can be created for each of the three stages of great writing: planning, monitoring and evaluation.
Shared writing: In my view, there is no more powerful strategy for teaching writing. Put simply, ‘shared writing’ describes the act of the teacher modeling a piece of writing with the students. Most crucially, it allows the teacher to verbalise their thinking as they write – making metacognitive thinking concrete and real. This process can make errors feel normal (yes, we all make mistakes when we write) and it can make expert writing visible. We can actively involve students in the decision making process by asking them precise questions, ramping up their motivation and engagement in the process of writing.
Gallery critique: This strategy, borrowed from Ron Berger, an American teacher and prominent educationalist, harnesses the power of assessment for learning and feedback. It demands that the writing of the students in the group is displayed ‘gallery style’. Essentially, it draws upon the power of peers to give meaningful feedback. Like any potent strategy it requires scaffolding. Berger has indicated that peer feedback should be ‘kind (but honest), helpful and specific’. Helping students give one another precise goals to improve their writing is strongly supported by the research evidence.