I think like many English teachers I’ve long been conflicted about the position of writing in the curriculum. On the one hand, of course writing is central to students’ experience of studying English. Not only should we aim to make them technically proficient, but we should explicitly teach them how to master a range of written styles and genres. But, on the other hand, writing units are turgid. Although I always dreaded the moment in the academic calendar when the inevitable writing scheme of work hoved into view, I felt guilty. Clearly, the fault was mine and I just needed to set aside my preferences and get on with the serious business of teaching kids to write.
Whenever I’ve planned out the English curriculum I want students to experience – and I’ve now done this a number of times – I’ve instinctively leapt from text to text; from one literary or linguistic movement to the next with ‘writing’ being squeezed into the gaps. The problem, of course, with making writing appear marginal is that this is how it gets treated in the classroom. Although I feel fairly clear about how the knowledge needed to write accurately, fluently and with expressions needs to be taught, because I’ve neglected how this should look at a curricular level, I’ve been guilty of assuming that others also know these things. But the idea of slapping in a ‘writing unit’ here and there still feels … wrong.
It’s taken me a long time to begin to articulate the reasons for my disquiet with the way writing is so often positioned in the curriculum, but now I think I get it. Treating writing as a thing – a discrete, teachable topic is, perhaps, the wrong way to think about what we want students to accomplish. Even attempts to make writing units more granular by teaching ‘creative writing’ or, ‘writing to persuade’ are, I think, fundamentally flawed. Here’s why: writing isn’t a thing. Or, rather, to the extent that writing is a noun, it’s an object of study. That is to say, it’s something to read. Writing – the process of making marks to express ideas – is a verb, an action, and as such is not nearly so amenable to study in the way we normally approach it and we would wish. Maybe it is, in fact, not a ‘skill’.
I’ve written many times about about the meaningful differences between knowledge and skill (this is probably my most lucid attempt) and what I’ve arrived at is that the only way we can teach children to acquire skill is to try to break the skill in question down into the knowledge it is composed of, teach that, and then get students to practice applying that knowledge. This being the case, it ought to be obvious that teaching writing can never be a ‘once and done’ operation. Whilst the required knowledge of how to write could, conceivably, be taught just the once, the practise required to acquire any degree of skill is a continuous process. What this suggests is that the teaching of writing is best served by a ‘little and often approach’.
Since reading Hochman and Wexler’s Writing Revolution and Graff & Birkenstein’s They say / I Say I’ve become convinced that teaching writing is best when the focus of the process is the curriculum content, we intend students to learn. What this means is that writing (just like reading , speaking and listening) should be fully integrated into every area of the curriculum. If students are studying, say, Macbeth, they should, as part of that study, be practising to write about Macbeth. This might be analytical, rhetorical, descriptive or whatever, but it should be linked, clearly and explicitly, to the content being studied.
Couch to 5k writing
The other point to make is that how we tend to go about asking students to write is often counter-productive. Daisy Christodoulou’s argument that effective practise tends not to resemble the final performance is well rehearsed; her metaphor of the kind of training required to run a marathon is a useful way to think about writing instruction. But, as most people never run marathons, maybe it’s more useful (especially in light of many of our lock down experiences) to think in terms of getting students to write the equivalent of a five-kilometer run. As you’re probably well aware, the Couch to 5K programme kicks off by interspersing periods of walking with 60 second runs. For anyone unused to running, 60 seconds is a challenge, but – for the most part – an achievable one. We are motivated by our success to believe that running for 90 seconds is also achievable and that, in time and with practice, we’ll be able to run for five kilometers if we stick to the programme. One of my favourite aspects of using the Couch to 5k app was that occasionally I’d be offered a really useful nugget of running instruction: advice on keeping my head still, or how to use my arms, how to breath, which I could immediately apply and see improvements.
So, to make a Couch to 5k writing programme it seems there are several important aspects to transfer from running to writing:
- To ensure early success and harness motivation by incrementally building up stamina.
- Little and often: the running programme assume you’ll run every other day. What should this look like in a English classroom?
- To keep the focus on the end target: eventually 5k will be not just possible but, maybe, enjoyable.
- To embed instruction as part of the process of doing; to provide additional knowledge at the point where it can make an appreciable difference.
- To consider the time period required to move from ’60 second writing’ to ‘5k writing’. For running this a 9-week programme, but there’s good reason to think this would be different for writing.
Embedding writing instruction
Perhaps the key difference between running and writing – or at least the one that needs most thought – is step 4; the amount of useful knowledge to be communicated. There are two main factors to consider here. First, the need to provide and remove scaffolding, and second, the fact that the different styles of writing students need to master require different instruction.
A few years ago, I suggested two rules for effective scaffolding:
- Scaffolding should only be used to allow students to attempt something they cannot currently do without help.
- Never provide scaffolding without having a plan for removing it.
A lot of the writing practice students get results in mediocre writing. This means that they carry around poor quality mental representations of what writing should look like and they end up getting better at writing badly. To escape this trap, students need to practise writing well, and for that they’ll probably need effective scaffolds. The style of scaffolding I’ve found most effective for descriptive writing is what I’ve called Slow Writing. Here’s an example of the kind of starting Slow Writing prompts:
- Your first sentence must be a question
- Your second sentence must be 3 words exactly
- Your third sentence must begin with a subordinating conjunction (Although…, Because…)
- Your fourth sentence must be 22 words exactly
- Your final sentence must begin with a simile (Like a…,)
Five sentence blocks like this are, I think, an effective 60 second versions of descriptive writing. Once students have had sufficient practice at writing these, then you can both start fading out the scaffolding and increasing the length of the ‘run’.
The 60 second version of analytical writing is, I think, sentence level analysis. Here’s an example of a fully worked example:
Once the required structure has been understood, you can introduce problem pairs which allow students to imitate the structure without copying the content:
And then, once students start to master this kind of writing you can start fading out the structure:
And again, when these sorts of analytical sentence can be produced without support, the length of the ‘run’ can start being increased. Readers of the Writing Revolution will be familiar with many other sentence level exercises (including the hugely popular because-but-so activity.) My experience has been that if usually takes students longer to move from 60 second runs (one sentence) to 2-minute runs (two sentences) than it does to increase the length of descriptive writing tasks. Quite how long this takes in practice obviously depends on much classroom time you dedicate to it. I’d suggest including these kinds of activities at least every other lesson. If we want students to genuinely increase their stamina to produce high quality writing, our motto should be, don’t practise until you get it right, practise until you can’t get it wrong.
At OAT, the Trust I now work for, we’re beginning to trial this approach in a few schools, and I hope to be able to report back with clearer answers to some of the other questions raised by this approach in the not-too-distant future.