I am making this as I go this term. I’ll update as more is completed. Feel free to use/adapt as you like, and let me know if you have any feedback! I’m really interested in how this could be improved…
Leila is an English Literature graduate with no real experience in teaching writing, or, indeed, writing creatively herself. She started her teaching career with little knowledge or understanding of how to help pupils write well.
In my experience, most English teachers are those who have studied English (be it linguistics or literature), rather than those who have taken courses that teach the art of writing itself, (for example creative writing or journalism degrees), so we find ourselves surrounded by other specialists who know how to write well, intuitively, but who are not necessarily experts in how to teach others this craft.
My teacher training taught me very little about the art of teaching writing; the training that was provided seemed largely to focus on how to mark the writing that pupils did, almost as if there was an acceptance that pupils should first make a multitude of errors and then the teacher should fix them by giving them lots of suggestions on how to improve.
The mantra of ‘plan first’ seemed to be the only advice given for ensuring pupils wrote well. If pupils could decide, in advance, upon all of the details they wanted to include in their writing and even note down lists of devices they intended to use, the magic would somehow just happen. And yet, what I experienced, time after time, was that the planning stage would go swimmingly and then the pupils would still utter those dreaded words: ‘Miss, I don’t know how to start’. What were my options? I write for them? ‘Okay, what about starting with this:’ I tell them to consult their plan? I question them about their plan to try to move them from notes about what they could write to fluent writing? None of these options seemed satisfactory to me, although pupils generally appreciated a dictation approach, which obviously taught them nothing. Then, there were the pupils who didn’t say they couldn’t start. They would dutifully write away, filling the pages of their exercise books with their wonderful ideas. And then I’d mark it and feel so disheartened because their efforts really were in vain and now I’d have to crush their spirit and pick apart their attempts.
I believed that there must, surely, be a better way. Perhaps two or three years into my career, I had developed the confidence to think beyond this tried and tested (and failing) strategy and find a new approach. Looking back, I had more quickly realised that academic writing didn’t come naturally, either, and that pupils needed structured guidance (I’ll come back to this shortly), but translating this to other forms of writing was less obvious to me.
I started reading about approaches to teaching writing. Finally, I found an approach that really resonated with me: Pie Corbett’s Talk for Writing. This is a cross-curricular approach, originally envisaged for primary schools but fairly quickly adapted for secondary schools, too, by Julia Strong and Pie Corbett. It has recently been revised, again, in the new edition, Transforming Learning Across the Curriculum. If you haven’t read it, I really do recommend it. The basic principle behind Talk for Writing is that if pupils haven’t already internalised the patterns of a particular style of writing, they can never write skilfully in this style for themselves. They must first ‘imitate’ before they can ‘innovate’ and finally ‘invent’.
The principles which underpin TFW are as follows, and are summarised from the TFW
- Provide a model
Teachers systematically model the speaking, listening, vocabulary and sentence patterns the students need. When writing is required, teachers provide a model text so that students begin by imitating the model.
- Facilitate oral rehearsal
Students internalise the pattern of the language required – they talk the text before they write it.
- Make the learning visible
Display work in progress: for example, a word bank, text map, model text, boxed-up structure, toolkit and shared writing to help students innovate on the pattern they have internalised.
- Co-construct the learning
I’ll try to contextualise this pedagogical approach. I want pupils to write a piece of rhetoric so I share a model first so they can see what theirs should look like and then give them a list of devices to include in their writing. However, their life experience has not already involved internalising the patterns of rhetoric, and simply reading or watching one speech isn’t enough to make up for this lacking experience. So, before they can invent something for themselves, my pupils first need to hear the best examples of rhetoric, internalise and copy the patterns of the style, maybe by performing a powerful political speech for themselves and text mapping speeches to help them learn parts or all of a speech by rote, and also hearing and seeing a range of rhetorical speeches so that they can see the patterns and commonalities of the style. With a deeper understanding of how experts use rhetoric, they have a better chance of emulating the writing style.
Now, the way I approach writing is broadly based on these principles, but I’ll try to
explain how teaching writing looks in my English classroom, on a practical level.
I want pupils to write a story. Some pupils will have all of the reading and life experiences to be able to invent something beautiful for themselves, without much instruction from me, but most will lack the confidence to be creative, most likely because they lack the knowledge of the genre, the vocabulary needed to express their ideas and the ability to structure their writing at both sentence and whole-text level to be successful, independently. I know that simply planning a story first won’t be the answer. Instead, I need to break down all of the barriers I think my pupils might face.
First, the story arc: I’d rather they internalise one story arc and learn to invent within this structure than write any old story. So, for example, I might show them several examples of stories that have a similar structure. I recently did this with a loss of innocence story arc. We read ‘The Flowers’ by Alice Walker and looked at the way the writer moved her protagonist from innocence to experience, at how the setting was utilised to aid this progression and at how symbolism was used to powerful effect. I always read first, to model good reading, but I also make pupils re-read as this is the beginning of internalising the patterns of the writing. I then showed them other examples of innocence to experience short stories, including Little ‘Red Riding
Hood’, ‘The Darkness Out There’ and ‘When the Wasps Drowned’. I pulled together key extracts from the models that served the same purpose across all of the stories to help my pupils to examine the tools used by the writers and how each writer conformed to and deviated from certain conventions. At this point, pupils started to spot the commonalities for themselves, seeing the devices the writers used to move
their protagonists from innocence to experience and even seeing tropes such as the use of the forest as symbolic of an internal struggle.
I then asked pupils to prepare to imitate by picking out words and phrases from all of these stories which could be used to create a world or character of innocence and a world of experience. This really opened their eyes to the way that symbolism can be used to show the development of a character. Once they had harvested (I used the verb ‘to magpie’ with pupils) the stories of the bits they might be able to reuse for
their own stories, I asked them to create a bank of additional setting details that could be used to portray innocence, for example, as well as asking them to rewrite parts of the stories they’d read to create the same atmosphere but with different, original details. At this stage, they were imitating the writers.
Once they had understood, internalised and imitated these patterns of this particular story arc, it was time to consider their own piece of writing. So, we considered the types of experiences that might trigger a person to be jolted from innocence to experience, and we read articles to broaden our experiences and ideas in relation to this question. My class came up with shocking ideas, such as seeing a dead body
floating in a canal, to very poignant ideas, such as the realisation that your mother is imperfect.
Now, they had the tools, and the final step, (not the first), was to plan. I gave them a
series of questions to answer:
- How would they emulate the story arc? Where would their story begin and how would they move from innocence to experience?
- How would they portray innocence through characterisation and setting?
- How would they introduce symbolism that could later be developed to show the loss of innocence?
- What would jolt their character from their innocent state?
- How would their setting change? (Actually, I also used extracts from Of Mice and Men to show them how the setting could be used in a symbolic way).
- How would their use of symbolism reinforce this message at the end?
And then on to the drafting. Not one pupil uttered those dreaded words, ‘Miss, I don’t know how to start’, and marking their stories was actually a pleasure because I only needed to support them to edit and tweak their work, rather than seeing a multitude of issues and realising that making some changes would do little to the overall quality of the writing.
This approach translates to any style of writing. The main thing I have learnt about teaching writing is that the ‘gap’ between those who can ‘naturally’ do it well and those who can’t, is usually an experience gap. They lack the vocabulary and the knowledge of the writing style to be able to invent for themselves; they do not lack the ability to write. As teachers, we need to give our pupils the tools they need to bridge this gap and talk plays a huge part in this.
At my school, we follow the principle, (I think I originally picked this up from something I read from David Didau), that we can only say what we can think, and we can only write what we can say but if we can say it, we can write it. So, first, we, the teachers, have to provide the experiences that our pupils lack, then we have to give them lots of opportunities to ‘say’ in the structured and creative, academic or rhetorical way we’d want them to write. After all, ‘reading and writing float on a sea of talk’ (James Britton).
In my lessons, I spend a lot of time rephrasing verbal responses with pupils and asking them to say again, with specific improvements, before all pupils write down the point or idea in a well-formed, structured sentence and then listen back to the sentences that have been written. At this point, I might ask them to develop the quality further by using a specific word or sentence construction, or I might support
them to do this by modelling the way their sentences might look. Rather than telling pupils not to copy, I urge them to magpie the phrases and words that they are not yet confidently able to use independently. By doing this, over time, they learn to incorporate more advanced vocabulary and sentence constructions into their own writing and learn how to bring tropes into their own creative writing.
Here’s an example of how this might look, within the context of a discussion about
Romeo and Juliet:
Pupil: It helps the families to get over the feud and make peace.
Teacher: Can you say that as a complete sentence?
Pupil: The love between Romeo and Juliet helps the families to get over the feud and make
Teacher: That’s an excellent idea. A good word to use here would be ‘transcends’. It means to
go beyond the limits of something. Can you say your idea again with this word
Pupil: The love between Romeo and Juliet transcends the conflict because it helps them to
get over the feud.
Teacher: Now you’re using really high-level language, which is excellent. It would be even
better if you also explained why their love helps the families to ‘get over the feud’, or,
I might even say ’bury’ their ‘strife’, which is a quote from the prologue.
Can person A try to say this idea to person B with an explanation of why their love
helps the families to ‘bury’ their strife’? Make sure you include the word ‘transcends’
in your sentence.
Of course, you can’t possibly do this with every idea given, but the more you help
them to develop their academic style through oracy, the better their writing style will
We also use conversation frames in our classrooms to model the academic style that we wish to see in their writing. Rather than simply discussing ideas about the theme of fate in Romeo and Juliet, we can also simultaneously develop their writing skills by asking them to share their ideas using sophisticated sentence constructions or vocabulary that we provide. They practice using unfamiliar language in a non- threatening way and when they come to writing ideas, they have already begun to internalise the patterns of academic essay writing.
‘Talk in classrooms is cognitive’, (Sir Robin Alexander), not social, so the expectation should be that pupils speak formally, in full sentences, and are given the necessary support to do so. For me, it’s an important bridge between pupils’ ideas and writing, and writing frames or academic writing support mats can further bridge this gap.
Voice 21, originally an approach to oracy in one school, now a charity providing training to schools across the country, is worth a look if you want further guidance and strategies for implementing structured talk in your classrooms. The impact of oracy on writing really is huge!
In summary, in my ten years of teaching, through my journey from a naïve teacher of writing to a Head of Faculty who delivers literacy training in my school, here’s what I have learnt about how to teach writing:
- Close the experience gaps for pupils by giving all pupils the opportunity to internalise the patterns of the writing style we want to see from them
- Model the writing we want from pupils: show high quality examples of the written word, allow pupils lots of opportunities to verbalise the style we ultimately want to see in their writing and don’t be afraid to allow pupils to ‘copy’ elements of the models they are given (as this is how they will learn)
- Encourage pupils to collect examples of beautiful words, phrases and descriptions that they can refer back to, to support their future writing
- Use structured talk to raise cognitive performance
- Understanding a text / having ideas for a story is one skill; writing it down is another: teach both.
If you were to take just one principle into your classroom tomorrow, my advice would be this: remember that writing is not only how we make pupils show us what they’ve learnt, but a skill that we need to explicitly teach, if we want to see the best of what our pupils have learnt. Invest as much time into teaching the writing process as the content you’re hoping they’ll write up and your pupils will reap the rewards. You’ll be
able to stop saying ‘they have the ideas but they’re not great at getting them on paper’.
It is the first week in December, and as I stand at the front of my classroom I can feel the rainwater in my shoes: it is a bleak day to do duty, and I realise I am still absent-mindedly carrying the bottles that I have confiscated on the yard. My Year 10 class observe me through slightly bleary eyes as I run through the knowledge retrieval activity. They can tell me that Mr Birling is an arrogant individualist, and they can recite what that means. A few of them can tell me that Priestley’s play is a diatribe against capitalism. And they can tell me some quotations that support these ideas. Then we move on to some carefully planned I do/We do/You do writing because they need to quickly master writing an essay before their assessment and we only have one lesson left. The pressure is most definitely on. 20 biros move relatively compliantly and uncomplainingly across 20 pages.
It’s a good lesson – right? This class struggle with reading and writing, but they need to be ready to write a detailed essay in the fast-approaching assessment; surely, since they have a reasonably secure knowledge base, the best way to prepare them is to work through a full example.
Later on, I look through their books. I see quotations from the text, challenging vocabulary (Birling isn’t ignorant, he is short-sighted and pompous), and there are some inferences that have real potential. The “you do” section starts promisingly with a reference to Birling’s laughter at the “younger generation” who “think they know it all”. Yet after that, what I don’t see are any developed ideas.
So what is the problem? They have a lot of knowledge, so why can they not expand on it? Despite constantly modelling, questioning, and feeding back, why are my students not developing the analytical, flexible thought-processes that will stand them in good stead when they go into the “real” world in an alarmingly short amount of time?
In the recent TM English Icons conference, Stuart Pryke posed an idea that chimed with my reflections on my Key Stage 4 teaching: what does challenge really look like in the English classroom?
On reflection, perhaps I have missed the mark with my understanding of the concept of challenge. This is not to say that the teaching of high-level vocabulary is redundant – it is absolutely necessary. As Hannah Lawrence quoted at the same conference, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” (thank you Wittgenstein!). Having access to meaningful vocabulary should allow my students to unlock concepts that will pave the way to a deeper understanding of the world around them. And having the aspiration that my class will be able to write an analytical essay is still essential. But for all my focus on word-level and essay-level work, I have missed out the interim building-block: the sentence.
So whilst I have been exploring how I can address this much earlier on in Key Stage 3, what have I
been doing to remedy this with my Key Stage 4 classes?
The Writing Revolution has been an excellent place to start. Because my students have knowledge, but struggle to articulate this on paper, I have started with because/but/so sentences, and much of the power of this approach is in its simplicity. There is very little that is daunting for my class about using these three words, and announcing a “because/but/so” activity doesn’t seem to prompt the same fear of failure in them that the words “paragraph” or “essay” inevitably elicit. As Mary Myatt stresses: I need to introduce appropriately high levels of challenge in a low threat environment.
But what does this look like in the (online) classroom?
I have recently been exploring Andrew Waterhouse’s “Climbing my Grandfather” with this class. After considering the big question “why might relationships be challenging?”, we moved on to reading the poem and annotating the opening and closing lines (thank you Barbara Bleiman!). In the subsequent lesson, I asked them to type the 5Ws into the chat box. Here are some of their responses:
Who: The poem is about the grandad and his grandson.
What: He is climbing on his grandad’s knee.
Why: He wants to get to know his grandad better.
After talking with them about the symbolism of the mountain/climbing on a relative’s knee I then
rephrased the “what” question, and my students added:
What: He is building a relationship with his grandad.
Then we went back to the text as I asked them how they knew this information – which word or phrase told them that this poem is about building a relationship? Their responses were all valid, yet in the examples above you will notice the stubborn prevalence of undeveloped simple sentences.
Having introduced and modelled because/but/so in previous lessons, I did a quick refresher of this, and then asked students to type the endings of sentences into the chat box (we would have used mini whiteboards in the classroom). Next, I selected some of their comments and added them to our collective work:
We discussed these sentences, and the class used them as a basis for making a list of elements of a successful sentence, which they then rank ordered to make a set of excellence criteria. Following this group activity, students then completed a Microsoft Forms quiz in which they worked independently to complete sentences, using the same pattern of because, but, and so. At the end of the lesson, I gathered some of their responses together into the slides below:
What is clear from reading through their responses is that the detail and depth of thought has
increased, and their writing is more natural and fluent than it has been in the past.
It is also evident that the “but” sentence proved to be the most challenging, forcing the class to change the direction of their thought and link this to an additional piece of knowledge or idea, resulting in a broader range of answers for question 2. Yet whilst the answers for question 5 are similarly diverse, the second half of the sentences does not flow logically from the first half – and, on reflection, this is because my sentence stem hampered them (I’m not sure how I would finish that sentence off myself!). Next time I need to remember to script possible answers before setting the task!
Next week, once we have measured these sentences against our success criteria, we will start to
build this work into paragraphs, and I hope that having more solid foundations will mean that the
groans of consternation from the class when I say that word will be more subdued. But as we will
be back in the classroom after weeks of remote learning, what will most likely be the same is the
rainwater in my shoes and the plastic bottles in my hand.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lotStephen King
and write a lot.”
The thought of reading and writing “a lot” to be a writer might dismay some students, and if you asked a student, ‘Why do you write?’ their response might be, “Because I have to pass an exam.”
But the motivation to write should not come from the need to achieve a particular grade, but from the desire to express themselves. So, how can you instil this drive to write in students?
To be a writer, you must acknowledge you are one. Whenever I begin teaching a writing scheme of work, the first thing I tell students is, ‘From this point forward, you are all writers.’ In acknowledging this, and reinforcing the concept of ‘thinking like a writer’, they start to become more confident in the work they produce.
From here, I get students to create their own writer’s journal, collecting amusing anecdotes or real-life experiences which they can use to form the basis of a story. They might read an article and save vocabulary from it for future use or pick a historical event which they then consider from a different perspective. Like
detectorists, they are encouraged to go out searching for and collecting images, phrases, characters; whatever they want to, so they have a springboard for future stories. The writing journal enables them to visualise themselves as writers and in lessons – where creativity is needed – they have a ready-made bank of resources which they have ownership of and which they can turn to for help when faced with that tyrant we know as ‘the blank page’. They can even be encouraged to share ideas with others, sharing new vocabulary or scenarios, to help to create a writing community.
Making use of free resources online can also be an effective way to develop students’ writing skills. Future Learn is an amazing website with lots of teaching courses you can do for free, including ‘Using Film to Teach Fiction,’ and there’s a whole range of author masterclasses for free on Authorfy.
Moreover, understanding how writers and readers think is key to helping students write effectively. Try this visualisation activity based on a workshop I attended with writer Rod Duncan:
- As a reader, what did you see?
- Did you have a clear image in your mind or was it difficult for you to envisage it (aphantasia)?
- What kind of building was in the clearing? Did it have any specific features which stood out to you?
- What colour is the peeling paint?
As a writer, we will have a clear image in our minds of what we see and describe – the image will be generated by the things we have been exposed to in our lives: childhood memories and experiences, previous reading, stereotypes, etc. What the reader imagines in their mind will be different depending upon the same things. But does it matter that what the writer describes might not be the exact same image the reader has? Of course not. But making students aware of this is vital as you will be reinforcing the importance of vocabulary choice and the significance of what information is provided and what is withheld by the author.
Another approach to supporting students with writing is providing some practical examples of how they can use their time to maximum effect. When they think of ‘writing’, they might associate this with lengthy essays and timed responses. However, by breaking up writing tasks into manageable chunks, students will come to realise that even if they only have a small amount of time to write, they can still achieve something.
The following resource was created over the course of several lessons. At the end of each lesson, as we reflected on the skills taught and learnt, my class and I collaborated on this revision document to help them to structure unsupervised revision time at home.
|5 minutes||Using an image from your writer’s journal, spend five minutes planning a story.|
Go on unsplash.com and collect photographs to put in your writer’s journal for later
Make a list of titles for stories. (you could use a Shakespearean quotation, e.g. ‘The Dogs of War’; ‘The Head that wears the Crown’; ‘Light Through Yonder Window.’)
|Read the opening paragraph of a novel and make a list of ways the writer engages you (e.g. structural features: withholding information, repetition, omniscient narrator, etc). Write an opening paragraph to a story which uses the same techniques.|
Go on the website unsplash.com and choose an image. Spend five minutes writing a description based on the image.
Using one of your character profiles from your writer’s journal, write a short description of a character.
|Watch a five-minute clip from a film and spend ten minutes writing a response (description/ story).|
1. Watch a short clip from a nature documentary; 2. Make a list of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, literary techniques to describe the atmosphere/ scenario; 3. Spend five minutes writing a response. 4. Self/ peer assess the work.
Having a document like this to refer to at home allows students to understand how to revise writing independently and reduce what was previously thought as an onerous task into something more manageable.
Finally, you could introduce a ‘five a day’ motivation activity for writing (all the tasks below could be completed every day and should take no longer than five minutes in total):
- Write a title for a story.
- Write five synonyms for an interesting word you see in the book you’re currently reading.
- Find an image and write a ten word sentence to describe it.
- Summarise a story idea in 50 words or less.
- Spend one minute writing non-stop about anything that comes to mind.
Helping students to establish a daily writing routine at home will give them structure and encourage them to practise this skill regularly.
A teacher who writes themselves (and we all do when we model responses) or takes the time to understand what students need to become writers will be able to support and encourage students to think beyond the exam and develop their writing skills for wider application. In showing students how effective writing can be achieved, you could potentially be teaching authors of the future.
Why is effective talk important?
On attending my first Oracy Pioneers session with Voice 21 I was astounded to discover the profound impact which talk, or lack thereof, can have on students. Of course, in preparation for attending the course I had begun to reflect on this: What opportunities for talk did I provide in my classroom? How did students feel about talking in lessons? Were the opportunities provided eliciting successful responses?
When I consider the amount of talk taking place in my classroom – my direct instructions, think-pair-share, questioning – it is no wonder that ‘talk is the most powerful tool of communication’ (Hardmann). The impact of effective talk, of course, stretches far beyond the walls of the classroom. Verbal communication has been consistently ranked as being among the most important skills employers look for in their employees and if we consider the fact that 50% of children in deprived areas start school with below average language skills, as educators we have a responsibility to ensure we make this skill a priority to develop. That being said, some statistics suggest that 90% of talking within lessons is being done by teachers, with individual students saying approximately four words per lesson per day (Page, 2005). This is why Oracy is crucial. Improving oral literacy can have enormous impact on:
- Academic outcomes
- Social mobility
- Well-being, self esteem and confidence
What does effective talk look like and how can we create opportunities for it in our classrooms?
In order for opportunities for talk to be effective it is essential that they are:
A climate for talk should be pre-planned and introduced through establishing guidelines for different types of talk (with student involvement), consideration and planning of timings, groupings, scaffolding and routines (see Fig. A). There should be a clear objectives or goals for a talk task e.g. a group consensus, summary, one idea to share etc. with success criteria (see Fig. B). Creating a whole school approach for oracy should therefore be as much of a priority as that of literacy and numeracy to ensure an effective strategy is deployed across classrooms.
Fig A – Example of Year 7 Discussion Guidelines
Fig. B – Example of planned Think-Pair-Share activity (Year 7)
What is the impact of effective talk on writing?
In order to measure the impact of some talk for writing strategies, I created a short sequence of learning for Year 10 English Language students to work towards a writing task – an article giving their viewpoint on capital punishment.
Prior to this, the class had already created their climate for oracy in the classroom by spending a lesson creating discussion guidelines similar to the Year 7 example above. I also had students conduct a baseline assessment of the writing task. The results were underdeveloped, lacked a range of ideas and credible rhetorical devices.
Firstly students were provided with thinking time on the topic to ascertain their own views; often what students struggle with when going into a discussion is that they haven’t had time to process their thoughts on the topic they are talking about. In order to keep the discussion purposeful and on track, I assigned roles for each student in their groups of 4-6 and provided job descriptions for each role so that students knew what they were responsible for. These were pre-assigned to ensure that roles and responsibilities were appropriate for the students in the groups.
To provide a scaffold for some of the students within the class with anxiety surrounding speaking in groups, I provided sentence stems for each role. The group’s goal was to come to a consensus on the statement: ‘no country which uses capital punishment can call itself civilised.’ Students started by taking turns, each giving their own viewpoint which was recorded on a consensus placemat, before a more open discussion took place with students engaging with each other’s perspectives. During this part of the discussion I used ‘fed-in facts’ to help stimulate and challenge thoughts within the conversation.
At the end of the group discussion portion of the lesson, one person from each group fed back their group’s consensus, all of which was collated for whole-class discussion before we spent a lesson on planning and re-writing the article.
When I marked the second attempt I found:
- Writing that was much more sustained in quality throughout
- Opinions were explained in much greater depth
- More detailed justifications of opinions
- Wider range of perspectives covered
- Greater variety in the language devices used
“In my writing life, I seem to have navigated an odd course between fiction and its negation, always half-wishing when I’m immersed in one that I were embarked on the other. I want the free flight of story when I’m hunkered down in facts and wish for a character who could offer a statement contradicted by another character. On the other hand, when I’m writing fiction, I often enough find myself wishing that I could fill the blank page with some meaty matter..”Lisa Appignanesi, reported in The Guardian (2012)
For me, this quote sums up a lot of what non-fiction writing really is about: having the ability to
present honest ideas that can challenge, while also using the deftness of literary language to
emotionally engage a reader, and to take them on a journey. I will never forget the mark left on
me by Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, as a book seemingly about birds of prey became a
beautiful and powerful account of personal grief. Why then do we so often teach students to
eschew so many of the wonderful devices that they have discussed in literature and practised in
their creative writing in favour of, dare I say it, DAFORREST?
Now, to be fair, DAFORREST can have its place, but in my time examining, it has become clear
that the students who truly excel in non-fiction writing are those that use their knowledge of
fiction writing. Indeed, many carefully chosen Paper 2 texts help students explore this in
question 3, where often there is not much to say about a statistic, but a huge amount that could
be said about metaphor. Take this example from H is for Hawk:
“You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there
and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps,
though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of
the space where the memories are.”
Over the last year, as part of writing our new curriculum, I have been focusing on teaching
students to use traditionally ‘fictional’ devices in their non-fiction writing.
The biggest ‘quick fix’ for students’ non-fiction writing however, came from re-considering the
structure of their work. Instead of a set-up of: introduction, argument 1, argument 2, counter-
argument, synthesis, conclusion, we have moved instead to a structure more akin to Freytag’s
analysis of dramatic structure. Our students are taught this explicitly in their first units of Year 7
(normally recognising elements of it from story mountain in their earlier education) in the context
of story writing.
In year 8, we then take this knowledge and begin to apply it to their non-fiction writing. We re-
visit the structure and consider how the terms that we have learned previously could be applied
to a letter. We initially just focus on exposition, climax and denouement.
Immediately, the emotional connection was made where it was simply lacking before. These were no longer letters that just recited beliefs, or rehashed facts and statistics, but letters that would encourage empathy and understanding from a reader.
We then continue to develop this as students progress in their English Language studies, and by Year 10 are using each aspect of the dramatic structure (here with the addition of a call back to focus on the spoken element of speeches).
We are also using models that exemplify
this structure, and apply it to looking at
other non-fiction texts, so that students
begin to realise the ways in which the
techniques used in fiction and non-fiction
can merge. The models also have an
exaggerated focus on devices such as
metaphor to really illustrate to students that it is fine to use these in their non-fiction work! An example of this can be seen in our year 10 speech writing unit.
Although we are a new school, and so will not see if this change in tactic results in higher marks on Paper 2, question 5 any time soon, I personally believe that there has been an improvement in students’ non-fiction writing. Breaking it down structurally has worked particularly well for some of our LPA cohort. Fingers crossed for Summer 2022!
MacDonald, H. – H Is For Hawk (2014) Jonathan Cape.
I retrained as an English teacher at the age after spending the previous 15 years in the classroom teaching horticulture. I had then had a 10 year spell doing various types of teacher training and various teaching and learning manager posts, and I decided to retrain as I had begun to feel very far away from my subject and was still young enough for another career. I feel my ‘newbie’ status is in many ways an advantage because I am open to new ideas.
My first trainee placement (in an inner city Bradford school) coincided with the publication of The Writing Revolution (TWR), by Judith C Hochman and Natalie Wexman. I had a mixed set of year 7’s and the first thing I asked them to do was a piece of writing. I was struck by what amazingly competent writers many of them were and my first thoughts were ‘what a fantastic job the local primary schools are doing.’ My second thought was, ‘how am I going to help these kids improve their writing?’ So I bought the book mainly because it had been recommended by Doug Lemov. I naively thought it would take me a few weeks to learn and implement the ideas. Little did I suspect that this would be a four year ongoing journey!
The first TWR lesson was the use of ‘appositives.’ This is an American term that loosely (and imperfectly) translates as a noun phrase. It is a phrase that describes the noun. I sold it to the students on the basis that it would make their writing more ‘slick.’ I showed them how they could combine two or three sentences and make them into one more complex sentence, which is a useful skill in analytical writing. The students, well aware of the grammar, were able to express the more complex ideas about the book we were studying, Oliver Twist. They were also able to reflect that appositives would help their reader to make more sense of their writing because it was smoother. My journey had begun.
My second placement was at an all girls Islamic school, Feversham Academy-already famous for their high expectations and results. I taught top set year 7 and 8 who were studying Shakespeare, and the 19th century novel, Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre. I noticed that the girls were able to write a lot but they found it hard to plan their paragraphs and also develop their ideas to make them more sophisticated. I started by doing a lot of sentence level work, using the conjunctions, because, but and so. One would assume that this kind of activity is too simple for top set groups in secondary school, but actually these tools are a very powerful way of encouraging students to join ideas together. Students don’t always see the connection between two ideas, and if they write about them separately, they can lose some opportunities to make their arguments more powerful. I was able to start lessons using sentence starters such as: Bronte was critical of the position of women in society because, Bronte was critical of the position of women in society but Bronte was critical of the position of women in society so. I found this stimulated ideas which led into to a very useful discussions about authorial intention and characterisation which was perfect for the formation of topic sentences.
This also led into the use of the single paragraph outline. This is probably one of the most simple, but difficult-to-implement tools in TWR repertoire. I have been trying different ways of implementing this method for 4 years and am continuing to tweak and develop it. There are some excellent training videos on TWR website that have really helped. The beauty of the Single Paragraph Outline (SPO) is that it is very open. It follows this structure:
Concluding sentence ___________
The topic sentence and concluding sentences should be written out in full (as indicated by the solid line) and the points should be in note form (as indicated by the dotted lines). This by itself introduces a good degree of discipline into the planning process. In my experience, students will just start writing if they don’t learn the importance of planning.
After several weeks of imperfect wrangling in the classroom I was very pleased and proud when the Head of English at Faversham Academy described the girls’ books as ‘stunning. ’it was early days, but my time with the students at Dixons has reinforced the usefulness of these methods to students. The SPO is not prescriptive; rather than limiting student thinking, it actually encourages students (of all abilities) to come up with and develop their own ideas into logical and coherent writing.
There are so may ways the SPO can be used. You can give the points and ask students to write a topic sentence and a concluding sentence. You can write a topic sentence and ask the students to write points. Today, I showed a group of ‘lockdown students’ the whole plan andshowed them my paragraph. I then explained how I had developed my explanations. I showed them the plan again and told the students that they could choose their own points, or rewrite their own topic sentence if they wished. As a mixed group of 20 year 7’s, they were all able to produce a very coherent piece of work. All the pieces were different, some were more sophisticated than others. Most of the students had chosen their own quotations and were able
to analyse them clearly. All of the students had been able to produce over half a page of writing in 10 minutes, and some , considerably more. This was just an ordinary day. Over time, I have found that the SPO does not limit the students’ thinking, it helps them to actually think.
The next step would be editing and reviewing and there is a whole chapter in TWR on this process. These lessons have been useful to helping students to see their writing as a draft and to regard writing as a process rather than a finished product. This is very useful to learners who don’t particularly see themselves as ‘writers’ because writing is a learnt skill. The materials and methods are merely part of the scaffolding. For example, I have spent entire lessons just on the use of a subordinating conjunction, although. This is very useful to help students to combine opposing ideas into a topic sentence which is particularly useful for
As teachers we are encouraged (by exam boards) to help students to express their ideas independently and freely. Prescriptive approaches to paragraphs, such as PEE, PEEL, PEAL have gone out of fashion. I would argue that the SPO is certainly not prescriptive. It is a tool that frees up thinking but helps students to build on and develop their arguments independently. This is precisely because the structure is open. Also I feel strongly that as secondary teachers we should be encouraging students to make the most of the grammar they have come into school with from primary. It is too good an opportunity to waste. TWR has helped me to help my writers to develop their analytical writing and to become better writers.
There are so many more tools in the book that I haven’t mentioned. I hope this piece will spark some debate about how these materials can be used in schools.
Teaching creative writing used to bring me out in a cold sweat. I’m not a confident writer so
trying to explicitly teach the writing process often left me flummoxed. And really, that was
the stumbling block for me – I wasn’t explicitly teaching the writing approaches at all. I never
slowed the process down enough for my students, underestimating the pressure I was
putting on their cognitive load.
While I am no expert in the art of teaching writing, I have found ways to improve my
approach. My aim is to empower students so they don’t shrink back at the sight of a blank
piece of paper. And to do this, I found I have to work through the writing process at a much
Making The Writing Process Explicit
Themes and concepts:
Those dreaded words: “I don’t know how to start!” I tried to avoid hearing this line by
throwing every resource under the sun at my students, desperately hoping something
would stick. Unfortunately, the more I gave, the more I seemed to straitjacket their
creations into drab, robotic responses that diligently included all of my key ingredients.
Rather than max out my photocopying budget for the month, I now try to use a key theme
or concept to help them root their writing in purpose. For instance, my Y11s have recently
been focussing on the theme of heroism and exploring how it’s presented in a range of
texts. By underpinning their writing with a familiar theme, I’ve found the students have less
issues with what they want to say because they have a wealth of ideas to draw on.
Precision rather than ambition:
Using a concept to underpin their written work has also given me time to develop the
students’ vocabulary before they put pen to paper. This has been about deepening their
understanding of the concept as much as creating an impressive vocabulary bank. We have
mined our texts for words connected to heroism, exploring the etymology to help students
really understand the meaning behind the words. Once we have expanded that vocabulary,
we work on making precise choices rather than ambitious ones. Telling students to ‘use
ambitious vocabulary’ always felt like a rather vague and elusive command. Plus it’s
misleading – sometimes ‘walk’ is preferable to ‘amble’.
What I wanted to do was get the students thinking about the purpose of the line and which word best suited their overall aim. To do this we focussed on just four words at first: extol, hero, glory, sacrifice and over a
series of lessons, I used retrieval practice and vocabulary starters like the one below to expand on those core words and ensure the students fully grasped the subtle differences between the synonyms. This has helped the students to deploy words with precision and avoid making vocabulary choices based on what appeared ambitious.
|Word||Synonym||Antonym||Put it in a sentence!|
Questions and images to develop our ideas:
Once my students have grasped the concept and have the vocabulary to discuss it, I then
introduce images to stimulate discussion ready for a piece of creative writing. I try to include
images which aren’t obviously connected to the theme so students have more freedom
when approaching the task.
We discuss how this image could depict heroism and then we question the image using frameworks like the one below:
Here are some examples from a recent Y11 lesson:
a. What is your character doing here?
b. Where are they going?
c. What is motivating them to make this journey?
d. Why might this journey be heroic?
e. Why might they battle through such adverse conditions?
f. What will happen if they don’t reach their destination?
My Y11s have done a lot of work around sentences, fragments and sentence types to ensure
that they are building accurate sentences. Once this is secure, we have focussed on building
our own sentences, often starting writing tasks with a simple kernel sentence that we can
experiment with together. I have no qualms about spending a significant amount of time on
a single sentence because the conversation and thought processes I can model for students
really help them to be more conscious crafters in their own writing. It’s also a great way to model how to edit and review work ready for when we need to tackle larger sections of written work.
Here is an example of some of the questions we might use to develop our kernel sentence:
And here is the final sentence, along with some notes detailing the decision making process:
Once we have created our sentence, we then spend time thinking about why this is our final
sentence. What meaning is being conveyed? What have our word choices done to the tone?
What mood has been created? I taught A level many years ago when there was a creative
writing element to the coursework and students were asked to write a commentary on their
pieces. It was an incredibly valuable activity and really helped students become more
Model, model, model…and collaborate:
Previously my own writing aversion has led to me avoiding live modelling. However, I now
endeavour to create whatever the students are creating, giving them the chance to see that
writing doesn’t need to be perfect; it is ok to make errors. I use a visualiser to model the
writing process for them, leaving an editing line under each one we write. I write by hand
because I want to normalise the errors and show them the stages all writers go through. I talk through my thought processes as I edit and review sections of my work and use questioning to encourage them to collaborate with me.
I loved the distinction in The Writing Revolution between reviewing and editing. It was a real
lightbulb moment as I realised I often conflated these two steps. When modelling we pause
to review our content: our word choices, word order, sentence order, where we need to
elaborate and areas where we are repetitive. Once we are happy with the content, we move
to editing, checking for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. By separating these two
steps, I again slow the process down and promote a more reflective approach to writing.
Teaching writing is still a work in progress for me but by embracing the messiness of the
creative process, I hope I am slowly removing the fear of writing for my students. During the
recent lockdown, using Google Docs to collaborate live with students and spend more time
refining a piece of creative writing has improved the quality of their written work. More
importantly, it’s empowered them and they no longer shrink back in horror when asked to
How can we use KS3 to better prepare students for writing analytical essays?
I am currently teaching Blood Brothers to Year 8 and they love it. Some are passionate in their condemnation of Mrs Johnstone, others argue that she has been cruelly manipulated by Mrs Lyons. As we read the text together, they are bubbling with opinions and questions, eager to tell me how the discrimination Mrs Johnstone faces is similar to that faced by Callum in Noughts and Crosses and this, like the ranch in Of Mice and Men, is another patriarchal world. Here is evidence that our KS3 reading curriculum is doing its job: gifting students with an appreciation of literature and a rich intertextuality that builds their understanding of its central concepts and how to verbalise this with academic vocabulary.
Then I introduce the question ‘How does Russell present Mrs Johnstone in Act 1?’ and the enthusiasm is cut dead.
The students sigh. Only halfway through Year 8 and they are already suffering from analysis fatigue. And for what? For several lessons, students puzzle over the mechanics of writing an analysis essay, rather than focusing on the complexity of characters or the richness of language. I have to provide so much scaffolding that I end up marking 30 almost identical essays. The opinions, curiosity and insight of our reading lessons are nowhere to be seen when they’re translated onto the page.
It has become clear that I am asking the students to run before they can walk. They need to be explicitly taught a toolkit of academic vocabulary and sentence structures that will equip them for KS4. They need to see and understand the component parts of an essay before they can independently put them all together. With this in mind, here are my plans for building a KS3 writing curriculum that lays the foundations for meaningful academic writing.
Alongside each text, students will be directly taught how to write academic sentences with plenty of time for deliberate practice. Inspired by Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution, these sentences will develop students’ ability to write extended answers that are rich in detail and content, whilst showing them exactly how to build an essay rather than giving them vague advice like ‘Develop your answer’ or ‘Include more references to context’.
For example, students will be taught how to use subordinating conjunctions such as although, whilst, since. Teachers will first model exactly how these sentences are put together, paying specific attention to the accuracy of grammar and punctuation. Students will then practise writing these sentences whilst developing their understanding of the text, as in the Blood Brothers example here. Mastering subordinating conjunctions will provide students with an actionable way of extending their responses and also creating sophisticated topic and concluding sentences. There is an example here of how I use subordinating conjunctions to challenge students to write assertive introductions at GCSE level.
Additionally, students will learn how to interweave extra detail and links to their contextual knowledge seamlessly into their writing with the use of appositives. An appositive is a phrase or clause that can be used to add additional detail to a noun and create complex sentences that give fluency and sophistication to students’ writing. As in the examples, this can be scaffolded by the teacher using matching activities that also review content, before students practise writing these sentences more independently.
For students to fully grasp a complex word, they have to hear it, read it and use it repeatedly in its different forms. Taking away repetitive extended analytical writing at KS3 will free up more time for students to practise using tier 2 and 3 vocabulary in their own speech and written work.
This can be combined with the sentence-level work, for example in the use of because-but-so, another strategy from The Writing Revolution. These sentence stems ask students to think about a text from different angles and practise using newly learned words, as in the example here.
Most importantly, I want our curriculum to carve out more time for oracy so students feel confident making ambitious word choices. By creating more space for debate and discussion, we give students the confidence to hold their own within and beyond the classroom, something even more important after online learning has stymied conversation and interaction. Structured talk is a vital way to try out new words, develop or change opinions and learn from other viewpoints. Therefore if we invest time in this at KS3, we will be rewarded with GCSE essays that can argue a point, sustain a coherent thread and conclude with a strong personal response.
Hearing a room full of students talking about what they have read is joyful and this experience provides them time to fully appreciate and formulate their thinking on the concepts that thread through the curriculum and build the foundations that prepare them for the academic writing of KS4 and 5. As teachers, we can guide their talk to include vocabulary practice and critical thinking about a text, like in these activities:
Breaking down analytical writing into its building blocks and making this an explicit part of our curriculum will mean that, at KS4, teachers will have a clear understanding of students’ syntactic knowledge. My hope is this leads to more carefully crafted, confident essays that focus on an appreciation of the text and its language rather than rigidly sticking to an essay writing formula. My next steps are to explore how these plans fit in with KS3 assessment and link to the creative writing curriculum. But ultimately and most importantly, it will give space to students’ engagement with literature; it will put the text at the heart of analytical writing.
I walked down the corridor and then I wondered what was through the door so I looked in but there was nothing so I went downstairs and I thought I heard a noise in the living room and I felt terrified.
I’m sure many of us have experienced a sinking feeling after reading descriptive writing a little like this. It feels especially disheartening when you have done so many of the ‘right’ things. High level models were explored, a success criteria of writing ‘ingredients’ was shared and discussed, the writing was planned and a word bank and sentence starters were available if pupils became truly stuck. They had all of the tools but the end result is shaky at best. Where was I going wrong?
Creative writing in particular puts extraordinary pressure on pupils’ working memories. They may be asked to create settings and characters, use techniques similar to those of experienced writers, draw on their vocabulary and somehow do that elusive and magical thing: interest the reader. What’s more, too often they are asked to do all of this in the space of one lesson. Our job as teachers, therefore, is to try and reduce this load.
I gave my pupils tools but they were useless unless they knew how to use them. In fact, it was akin to me being handed a toolbox and being told to fix a leaking sink. I would know what some of the tools were, I could guess at the use of others but ultimately I would have no idea what order to employ them in or where to put them.
While there are many issues that need to be addressed when pupils are producing writing like that in the example (sentences and conjunctions for starters), I wanted to focus on empowering weaker writers to be descriptive and consider their word choices. To do this I focused on pupil talk and word class. I found that consistently reminding pupils of the purpose of each word they wrote helped them use more adjectives and adverbs in their writing and to use them effectively.
Creating word banks
Rather than give pupils a word bank to use in their writing, we construct a word bank collectively that helps them think of specific instances when they could use this vocabulary. This ensures that pupils know the meaning of vocabulary in the bank and feel confident in using them in their writing.
Before doing this I would explain the premise of the task and perhaps use images or video to help prompt their thinking. The example below is from a writing task about being an astronaut.
|Adjectives to describe emotions||Adjectives to describe space||Verbs you could do in space||Adverbs to describe movement in space|
Pupils were reminded about word class but also asked to consider when the words they chose would be useful. This task could take up to ten minutes and can benefit from a few pupils being responsible for using a thesaurus to explore options. For younger year groups I have also tried using drama to engage them and understand word class e.g. ‘Show me how you would behave if you saw a shark while swimming’. We could then work together on fitting a word to that action, which was useful for pupils with limited vocabulary.
What I mostly found, however, was that pupils were able to articulate their ideas and explain how they would use words fluently, words that may not have been used in their writing otherwise.
I always show my pupils a high level model, even if it is a short one, and discuss how it is constructed. However, I believe there is definitely a place for using simplified versions for pupils to improve. For weaker writers I have experimented with explicitly telling them what class of word to insert and where (this can be done after the word bank task). If we take our example from earlier, I might write this up without grammatical errors and ask pupils to complete tasks. For the below example I would ask pupils to place an adverb around the words in pink and an adjective in front of the word in italics. Pupils would then read out their improved version and we would discuss the choices they had made to improve the writing. I found this effective as a stepping stone between pupils’ own writing and high level models.
|I walked down the corridor and I wondered what was through the door. I looked in but there was nothing. I went downstairs. I thought I heard a noise in the living room. I felt terrified.|
Other tasks could include:
- Moving adverbs to different locations
- Using a thesaurus to change words
- Cutting unnecessary words
- Changing words to change tone
- Rearranging words and or sentences
Collaborative Slow Writing
Both of the previous tasks rely heavily on one thing: talking. Discussing and understanding writing choices is one of the most powerful things we can do to improve pupils’ writing.
My last suggestion, therefore, is based around writing together. I have done this as a class with smaller groups but it could also be used for group work. This stemmed from trying Slow Writing with some of my weaker writers. I found that they struggled to follow the instructions independently. I was asking them to go against everything they knew about writing.
The below prompt example is about seeing an abandoned house. Whatever the prompt, the important element is to use questioning to ensure pupils are thinking about the word choices they make.
|1. Start your first sentence with an adverbial phrase of time|
2. Use onomatopoeia in your second sentence
3. Start sentence 3 with: “In the blink of an eye…”
4. Use at least 3 adjectives
5. Use a simile or metaphor
6. Your final sentence should only be 3 words long
Questions you could ask:
- How would changing our adverbial phrase of time change the atmosphere?
- Could we use a more specific noun/verb/adjective etc.?
- Why is that choice more suitable?
- Does this noun/verb/adjective/adverb create the atmosphere we are looking for?
- What order should we place these 3 adjectives in?
If doing this in groups you could set up roles so that one pupil was tasked with challenging word choice, another focusing on atmosphere, one in charge of writing and another in charge of proofreading/editing. Pupils could be supplied with questions to help prompt them.
Finally, sharing the end result is vital for empowering struggling writers. Whether on the board, on a visualiser or simply read out, pupils knowing that they’ve created a high quality piece of writing that could rival the model helps them see themselves as writers.