Teaching Writing: a Work in Progress

<strong>Emily Hall</strong>
Emily Hall

I’ve been an English teacher for 13 years working in South Yorkshire. Previously, I was a Head of English. I now work part time at a brilliant secondary school in Rotherham leading on Curriculum and Progress in Y9 and Y10. When I’m not with my three amazing daughters, I enjoy immersing myself in CPD opportunities.
Twitter: @MrsHallEnglish

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
slower pace.

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.

WordSynonymAntonymPut it in a sentence!
Extol
Glorify
Revere
Heroic
Sacrifice
Bravery
Courage
Peril

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?

Sentence construction:

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
reflective writers.

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.

Moving forwards:

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
write creatively.

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