Why do we ask pupils to write? There may be very many answers to that question but in my experience of working with teachers and observing lessons, overwhelmingly, teachers ask pupils to write in order to check that lesson content has been understood. This is of course a worthy aim, but do we value the actual writing?
Leadership guru, John C. Maxwell said, “To add value to others, one must first value others.” Likewise, to add value to pupils’ writing, one must first value pupils’ writing.
In a lesson I observed last year, a science teacher had taught her Year 8 class about Marie Curie and her discovery of radium. In order to check they had understood, she asked them to write a letter to Madame Curie informing her of how her discovery had changed the world. As this was a science lesson the teacher had, quite rightly, not spent any time teaching her students how to write letters. The result was, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the pupils produced dreadfully written letters with little understanding of the mode of writing and numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes. OK, not great but it was at least an opportunity to identify and correct their mistakes. But no: the teacher then festooned these letters with ticks and ‘well dones’. Why? Because they had understood the content. But what had they learned about writing?
Very rarely do scientist write letters to other, dead scientists. When I asked the teacher about why she had decided to ask for the response to be written in the form of a letter, she explained that she had thought it would be a nice opportunity to develop her pupils’ literacy. But this well-intentioned task actively undermined her pupils’ ability to write well by inadvertently teaching them that it is only the content that matters.
Pupils are expected to write in most of their lessons but rarely is their writing valued for how it is written, merely on what it contains. But if we don’t value how they write, why should they? And if writing is not seen as valuable in its own right, then what pupils will learn is that as long as you get down the facts, writing doesn’t matter.
Here are some other well-intentioned but misguided attempts to improve pupils’ writing I’ve observed:
- History: Write a tabloid article about the Battle of 1066.
- Maths: Write a leaflet explaining triangles to an alien
- Geography: Pretend you’re a volcano and write a description of what it feels like to erupt.
In each case the teacher is faced with a choice: either commit time to explicitly teaching tabloid journalism, leaflet design or descriptive writing or teach the content of their subject. Time spent on writing in ways that are irrelevant to your subject is time you can’t spend teaching your subject. (This is, I would suggest, an example of a real dichotomy.) If you decide not to commit valuable teaching time to these irrelevancies then pupils are unlikely to write well. What we practise we get good at, and if pupils spend time practising writing that is only valued in terms of the content knowledge it contains, then they are not going to get good at writing well.
So what to do? The answer may be to view the content and the language of your subject as inseparable, and teach the genres of writing that naturally occur in your subject. How do geographers write? As a subject specialist you probably already know, but a quick google search revealed this useful looking document. And the inestimable Darren Mead sent me these superb examples of generic writing applied to a range of subjects: explanation, procedural, report, recount and review.
For some really excellent examples of this in action I can heartily recommend Lee Donaghy’s blog.
For your convenience, I’ve collated some research on subject specific writing genres and put together the following document on genres in geography, history and science:
What are the main advantages of using an operational amplifier like the Darlington transistor circuit?
We could scaffold pupils’ attempts to craft a response that expresses more complex thoughts by asking them to respond by putting the reasons in the subordinate clause and the effects in the independent clause:
Here’s a similar example from English literature:
Once the sentence structure is taught, pupils are able to think differently about what they have learned.
And here’s a six mark question from a biology exam:
Why are the effects of droughts worse in less economically developed countries (LEDCs) than more economically developed countries (MEDCs)?
If we taught pupils to write a sentence beginning with ‘Although…’, would they produce a more interesting response?