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:

But what about subject like maths where there isn’t really any naturally occurring genres of writing? Earlier this week, I was sent this example of writing in maths by the wonderful David Chart (@tallerteacher):
Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 15.11.51Here is a zoom into the first paragraph:
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I was initially sceptical about the idea of spending time on extended writing in maths but David assures me that as well as improving his pupils’ writing, this is also making them better mathematicians because of the time spent thinking about how to explain the concepts about which they have learned.
Thought frames, not writing frames
In most cases though we should probably restrict ourselves to the writing pupils will be asked to do in our subjects. We could profitably spend time thinking about activities that have the dual purpose of improving writing and making our pupils better subject specialists.
Consider this example from a design technology test:

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:
Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 15.05.57
Here’s a similar example from English literature:
Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 23.33.53
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:

Farm animals give off large amounts of methane. Explain the effects of adding large amounts of methane to the atmosphere.
Most pupils will default to listing what they know in response to this sort of question. But would the response be more sophisticated if we asked pupils to use the following sentence structure to make their response:
Considering that____________________, ________________________________.
Wouldn’t this force them to interact with the subject content in a more interesting way?
Or what about this geography question:

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?

And I particularly love this example from Doug Lemov’s blog.
Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 14.55.50
Given this prompt most people will write lovely descriptions but may end up missing the point Bruegel is attempting to make: that Icarus’s demise is utterly insignificant.
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If you were to ask pupils to write their description beginning with the phrase “At first glance…” it would ensure that they interacted with the content differently. Not only would they become better writers, but also better thinkers. And isn’t all teaching ultimately all about making pupils better thinkers?
So next time you ask your pupils to write, consider the consequences. Are you just asking for content knowledge? Maybe bullet points will suffice. If not some time should be committed to deconstructing examples from your subject and modelling how a ‘good’ response should be constructed.

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