Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.

Shakespeare

It’s been a while since I first wrote about Slow Writing and in that time it’s rather taken on a life of its own. Today I had the interesting experience of someone excitedly telling me about this ‘great idea’ they’d been using to transforming students’ writing, and guess what? Now, I don’t want to suggest that I’m precious about it or that it’s in any way ‘mine’, but it is one of the relatively few good original ideas I’ve had and I feel a certain sense of paternal pride in its increasingly viral spread.

I first came up with the idea when teaching an intervention class  of Year 11 C/D borderline boys in about 2008. Broadly speaking they were willing, but no matter what I tried the writing they produced was leaden, plodding stuff. I gave them all kinds of outlandish and creative prompts which they would dead bat and produce yet another dreary yawnfest. Needless to say, we were all getting a bit irritated with each other. Out of sheer frustration I decide to give them explicit instructions on how to write a text sentence by sentence.

Sort of like this:

  • Your first sentence must starting with a present participle (that’s a verb ending in ‘ing’)
  • Your second sentence must contain only three words.
  • Your third sentence must contain a semi-colon
  • Your fourth sentence must be a rhetorical question
  • Your fifth sentence will start with an adverb
  • Your sixth sentence will be 22 words exactly.

And so on. Much to my surprise they loved it. I remember one boy saying, “Bloody hell! This is the first time I’ve written anything that isn’t rubbish!” and asking if he could take it home to show his mum.

I’ve come to understand that an expert writer thinks not just about what they write, but about how they write it. We have the ability to matacognitively engage with our writing and make decisions about what is likely to sound best. Often we do this at a level beneath consciousness; the questions we ask about our writing are automatic and so well stored in long-term memory that we’re not really aware of what we’re doing.

But novice writers don’t have this ability. They tend to default to the time-worn narratives they have used before and shape what they know in the simplest most straightforward way they can. As they write they’re so busy thinking about what to write that there’s little space in working memory to consider how it might be written. Giving pupils sentence prompts frees up working memory so they can shape what they know in a more sophisticated way. These constraints provide pupils with the metacognitive prompts for thinking about what they know and allow them to be creative.

Since writing the original post, I’ve talked to a number of different people about how they use Slow Writing and have been able to refined and adapted some of my thinking.  One of the big changes is my conclusion that explicitly teaching pupils how to write different types of sentences doesn’t just make them better writers, it makes them better at thinking about subject content.

This post on crafting beautiful sentences was the start of the process. The idea was that by explicitly teaching pupils to use a range of different sentence structures they would think differently about subject content.

If just asked pupils to write what they knew about the relationship between George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, they might say something like this:

George and Lennie really like each other but sometimes George gets angry with Lennie.

But what if I gave them something like this?

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 17.49.17Wouldn’t they be forced to think in a more sophisticated way about what they knew?

This can also work in other subjects.  Consider this 6 mark question from a biology exam:

  • Farm animals give off large amounts of methane. Explain the effects of adding large amounts of methane to the atmosphere.

Normally pupils would just dump what they knew about the subject on the page with little regard to how their writing is structured. But what if we taught them to use specific sentence structures? Let’s say we ask them to structure their answer by beginning with the phrase “Considering that…” – how might that affect the way they thought about the science they knew? When I’ve worked with teachers to experiment with this we’ve found that not only does make students better writers, more importantly if makes them better at thinking. By considering the shape of what they know, the ideas become more nuanced.

And if we are relentless about asking pupils to practice using a range of sentence structures to think in this way, it’ll become permanent. The structures will transfer to long-term memory leaving their fragile working memories free to think about subject content with great depth and sophistication.

If you’re interested in finding out more, I’ve written about this in more detail in my new book The Secret of Literacy. And do please let me know if you come up with any exciting new variants on using Slow Writing.

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