Using Word Classes to Empower Struggling Writers

Lauren Hitchman
Lauren Hitchman

Lauren is an English RQT working in her home town in South Wales after 11 years in Devon. Prior to moving into teaching, she worked in international student recruitment in East Asia before deciding to stay in the classroom permanently. Lauren has an MA in Victorian studies and is a geek for the gothic. 

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 emotionsAdjectives to describe spaceVerbs you could do in spaceAdverbs to describe movement in space
Terrified
Awed
Overwhelmed
Black
Deep
Endless
Float
Glide
Flounder
Gracefully
Slowly
Frantically

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.

Improving models

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.

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