Teaching Writing: Reflections from a Head of Faculty

Leila Plant
Leila Plant

Leila is the head of a high performing English department at an urban school in Manchester. By valuing what is truly important in the English classroom: enquiry, culture, creativity, reading, writing and oracy, Leila and her team have written an English curriculum which is designed to prepare pupils for life beyond the classroom. She leads a team of teachers who are passionate about pedagogy and who care deeply about growing young people, rather than simply prepping them for exams. She delivers and enthusiastically takes part in as much CPD as possible, believing, sincerely, that there is always more to learn.

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
website:

  • 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
peace.
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
included?
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
become.

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’.

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