The Power of Simplicity: Supporting Reluctant Writers at Key Stage 4

Amy Smith
Amy Smith

After Amy completed PhD in English Literature in 2014, she moved into teaching and has now spent five years in a lovely comprehensive school in the beautiful city of Durham. She is a Head of Year and her favourite text to teach is Othello. You might see her daily literary quizzes on twitter.

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.

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