Sir, do we have to write in sentences? Yes, you bloody well do!
Students do a lot of writing at school but, bless me, most of it’s turgid stuff. In practically every lesson they’re required to scribble stuff down in their excise books, even if it’s only a learning objective and the date. Having spent a good deal of the past two terms observing lessons across the curriculum, I can safely say that most of the writing students do is an exercise in missed opportunities. And almost none of this writing is valued in any way other than for the content it contains.
Why is this? Why do we get kids to ‘write down what you’ve learned to today’ without the slightest interest in how they’re supposed to write it, whether it will be spelt or punctuated correctly, or even if it’ll be organised into sentences? I’ll tell you why: because it’s easy. If kids are writing, they’re busy. If they’re busy, they’re not fiddling with Bunsen burners or twanging rulers. And, there’s the added bonus that you can then have a peek in their books to see whether they in fact did learn anything. And that’s fair enough, as far as it goes. It’s not that I’m advocating that students do less writing, rather that their writing should be valued: by us as much as them.
I want to see the back of purposeless writing; writing that exists solely to convey content knowledge. My feeling is that whenever we ask students to transcribe their thoughts without considering how we want them to do it, we’re actively doing them a disservice. We’re participating in a conspiracy which says, it doesn’t matter how you write; no, spelling’s not that important; apostrophes? Pah! Who cares? What students are learning, day in, day out, is that writing well just doesn’t matter.
And even when writing does purport to have a purpose it’s often bizarre. One of the saddest examples I’ve seen in a student’s book was this: write a letter to a scientist explaining what you know about osmosis. Why? Who would ever write like this? Is that really the best we can come up with? And what was worse was the fact that there had evidently not even been the vaguest attempt to explore the conventions of letter writing.
One of the most effective and simple examples of literacy teaching I’ve seen this year was in a maths lesson where the teacher asked students to reflect on their learning using sentence stems displayed on the wall and them asked to proofread what they’d written. This is so easy that any teacher could do this without breaking a sweat.
Moving up a gear, one of my favourite examples of writing being taught explicitly is this:
This came courtesy of science teacher extraordinaire, Darren Mead. It’s abundantly clear from this scrawled snapshot that while Mr Mead may not value presentation, he puts a lot of thought into designing success criteria which focus on both how and why students are being asked to write like scientists. Why can’t every piece of writing students are expected to do be as carefully considered?
Well, I’m not entirely unreasonable; sometimes we have good reasons for wanting short bursts of writing to be completed quickly. But when this is the case we should take care to tell students they are drafting rather than writing. The first time anything is written it is a draft. This then sends a clear message that it will be redrafted. Possibly more than once. For short, straightforward pieces of content writing I only insist that writing should be proof-read.
Now, whilst on the subject of proof-reading, I’d like to share some of my thinking about many of the marking notation guides I’ve seen in circulation. Most of them are fiendishly thorough and cover an endless variety of possible errors. If you’re using something like this, please stop. It is, on the whole, pointless. It will only be fully understood by a few grammarians who don’t need it anyway and be rightly ignored by everyone else, students included. At my previous school the then Literacy Coordinator, Dee Murphy, came up with the PCS Code. This simple document covered the basics: punctuation, capital letters and spelling whilst simultaneously sharing the same initials as the school. It was simple enough to be both memorable and useful. I have shamelessly plundered its wisdom for my current school and rebranded it as the CSP Code. Ingenious, eh?
The idea is that students are expected to seek out and correct errors before submitting work for marking. If I then spot anything they missed (woe betide them!) I use the CSP notation to point it out before asking them to redraft.
It takes time and effort to train students to do this willingly and thoroughly. They will attempt to wear you down by continuing in their callow disregard for accurate writing. But know this: they will thank you for your finicky perseverance in the end. And if they don’t, they’ll at least be able to write accurately, so hah!
Whenever I set students a piece of extended writing I write with them. I was first advised to do this about six years ago have been a zealous convert ever since. Writing alongside students has several advantages. Firstly, they can’t ask you questions and are forced to rely on their own resources for the duration of the task. As soon as their little hands start to creep up I just tell them that I’m busy writing, and for the most part this seems reasonable to them. Of course I provide help in the form of clear success criteria and stuck stations around the room which they can consult if confounded.
Sometimes I type my work and project it on the wall either while students are working or after they’ve finished. Sometimes I give them typed copies to read and mark. Sometimes I read my work aloud. The point is that they know I can do what I’m asking them to do and do it well. Admittedly, sometimes too well – I have had to learn how to put together ‘perfect’ C grade essays as well as A*s.
The other benefits are: they appreciate the fact that I don’t set writing tasks that I’m not prepared to undertake myself; I have amassed a multitude of useful models to share with students and lastly, I’ve sometimes found through tackling a task that I thought was either easy or hard was in fact hugely misjudged – occasionally the process of writing has even revealed what I should have been teaching. And the biggest reason is that it has massively improved my own writing. Writing more often has, without question, made me a better writer. If you haven’t tried doing this yourself I recommend it with reservation.
So, to sum up, three simple techniques for getting students to value their writing.
- Give clear success criteria on the genre, audience and purpose (GAP) of the writing they will be using
- Focus on the process of drafting and make sure you give lesson time for them to redraft and improve written work
- Write alongside students in order to raise the importance and value of the task