The first thing to say is this is not in any way supposed to be a complete or unified theory – I’m well aware that there are many other important strands to improving pupils’ writing and have written about many of them before. But I do think this theory (which has been bubbling away on my mental back burner for a while now) describes just one of the processes that can turn otherwise able pupils from poor writers into much more able ones. That said, I tend to get a bit over excited about these sorts of things and am often mistaken. Knowing how keen many readers are to point out flaws in my thinking I thought I’d test out its robustness by sharing it with you.

So, here goes:

1. We can only say what we can think.

2. We can only write what we can say.

3. But if we can say it, we can write it.

What does this tell us about the importance of speech?

Myhill and Fisher tell us that “spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress.” This being the case, why isn’t talk taken more seriously in schools? Well, Robin Alexander suggests that “One of the reasons why talk is undervalued is that there is a tendency to see its function as primarily social… buttalk in classrooms is cognitive and cultural as well as social.”

Now that sounds excellent doesn’t it? But what does it actually mean? If my first statement, “we can only say what we think” is correct, and I’m pretty sure it is (try thinking about something you don’t know. Tricky, isn’t it?) then what we need to do is improve pupils’ thinking. But thoughts are hard to see. All we as teachers can do to evaluate our pupils’ thoughts is to examine what they say and do. Clearly if you can already write well then there’s no real need to make you speak – we can see your thoughts on paper. But often children struggle to turn their thoughts into words fit for the page.

Typically, we focus on the confidence and clarity with which pupils speak. We worry far less about the quality of what they say. The overwhelming majority of pupils (especially in secondary schools) can speak fluently, but many can only speak in ‘everyday’ language; they are unable to put their thoughts into a more academic register. This ability is something teachers usually take for granted: we mentally translate our ‘everyday’ utterances into academic language. Some of our pupils can do this too. But some can’t. Take for example the ‘verbally able’ pupil who has great ideas but seems incapable of writing any of them down. What’s with that? Contrary to what we may think, they’re not being awkward or lazy, they simply can’t translate their thoughts into the language of writing. They know what they’ve just said wouldn’t make sense if they wrote it down. So they don’t.

What we tend to do is give these pupils writing frames to enable them to structure their thoughts and get something written down. These kinds of constraints are stifling and result in stilted, plodded writing and dependent pupils. Instead, all we need to do is to use these scaffolds at the point of speech; simply ask pupils to rephrase what they’ve said so that they ‘speak like an essay’.

So, when conducting a classroom discussion, display prompts around the room and direct pupils to express their ideas using the thought stems. Here’s some history ones:

  • One effect of … was to …
  • This was because…
  • As a result …
  • The first reason for … was …
  • These factors led to …
  • The effect of this was…

Or how about these from English:

  • This might mean… because…
  • The writer used the phrase… to imply…
  • The writer’s intention is…
  • This could also suggest…
  • The word … is effective because…

Another advantage to using these prompts at the point of speech is that the scaffolding is a lot easier to remove as pupils are less likely to repeat cumbersome frames unnecessarily.

Using these prompts in combination with key words is even more effective. If we want pupils to ‘speak like scientists’ then we need them to not only use subject-specific keywords, but we also need them to use language in a way that a scientist would. So, in an experiment designed to demonstrate the principles of the conservation of mass, teachers would, as a matter of course, introduce the keywords ‘products’ and ‘reactants’. But what happens then?

Take this example:

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 13.24.53

Although the logs (reactants) appear to take up more space than their charred remains (products), the mass remains the same. When pupils have a go at this experiment, they naturally want to say things like: ‘The amount of reactants is the same as the amount of products.’ We need to scaffold their ability to talk about this chemical reaction using scientific language. We need to show that them that a scientist would be more likely to say: ‘The mass of the reactants equals the mass of the products.’ Pupils tend to say: ‘The mass has stayed the same.’ They need prompting to say: ‘The mass has been conserved.’

And because their ability to speak about the conservation of mass has shifted, so has their ability to think. If we explicitly teach pupils to talk in this way, then they will be able to think like scientists. But we need to give them further opportunities to speak like scientists and to explicitly use their language/knowledge to talk about experiments in terms of scientific equations.

And having expressed thoughts in academic language allows us to write in academic language. I’m not really sure why this is. It may have something to do with new synaptic connections being formed by having expressed thoughts in a particular structure, but then again, that might be gibberish. What I do know is that this works. Certainly there are a few caveats: this doesn’t take into account motor difficulties or even confidence, but providing you have learned the print code, can hold a pen and are willing to give it a go, it’ll work.

The downside is some pupils’ unwillingness to reframe their thoughts using your prompts. Why, they might truculently ask, should we change the way we speak? It’s important to explain that there is nothing wrong with ‘everyday’ language. They way they speak is fine for everything else but it’s not the language of the classroom and if they want to write like an essay, they need to be able to speak like an essay. Like anything else worthwhile, this will take time to embed; changing classroom cultures is simple but far from easy.

Here’s a presentation on this and other ideas for improving writing that I gave to Education Scotland’s National Literacy Network in March:

I go into more detail in my book The Secret of Literacy: Making the implicit, explicit.

Related posts

How to get students to value writing
Developing oracy – it’s talkin’ time
Mind your language