Academic success is dependent on students being able to communicate their understanding of a subject and, sooner or later, that communication will be written. For many secondary teachers writing is something that just happens; some students do it well, others poorly and there’s precious little you can do about it. In secondary schools teachers teach subjects and although some effort will be put into essay writing skills in some subject areas, by and large, the ability to write effectively is left to chance.
Back in 2006 I marked Paper 2 of the AQA English Language GCSE and one of the prompts students were given to write about was ‘Describe the room you are in.’ Many of the responses were, to say the least, turgid. In fact, roughly two-thirds of the scripts I’d been sent to mark began like this: “The room I am sitting in is…” I remember thinking, how is it that after 11 years of compulsory education in the one exam where students are expected to write creatively and imaginatively they default to that? The problem, I concluded, was a lack a practice. I have since been proved wrong. The advice below encapsulates what I think every secondary school teacher ought to know about teaching students to write effectively.
1. Think about why you want students to write
If you’re not going to value students’ writing why should they? Learning is never neutral and students often learn things that are actually detrimental. Much of the writing students produce – and they produce a lot – only exists for teachers to check whether students have understood the content they’ve been taught. Students learn that while what they write is important, how they write it is irrelevant. It can help to explicitly teach students the benefits of lexical density, but more usefully, you should be aware that if you’re not going to value students’ writing, you shouldn’t ask them to write. Find another way to assess their understanding: ask them questions, have a discussion, use mini whiteboards etc.
2. Less is sometimes more
Skilled writers don’t have to think about how to interest readers or look clever, they can just do it. This is not the case for many students – they just don’t have the metacognitive experience to think like a writer. Techniques like Slow Writing or The Art of the Sentence help students to focus on details without having to worry about writing loads. With sufficient practice, students will be able to both write beautifully and at length.
Another advantage of writing less is that you can encourage students to select and shape the content knowledge they have learned. Instead of just dumping everything you know on the page, having to think carefully about exactly which item of knowledge is appropriate and how to shape it to fit in a particular sentence makes students think with greater sophistication about the content they’ve learned. It seems reasonable to suggest that expecting students to think in more sophisticated ways will make them more sophisticated thinkers.
3. Encourage students to think about how as well as what they write
Of course, there will be times when you really do want students to write, sometimes at length and it’s worth knowing that this depends on effective modelling and scaffolding. Maybe the most advantaged students will have read enough to be able to intuit how to write well without being shown, but for most students, modelling how you – as an exert in the subject you’re teaching – thinks is essential. Deconstruct examples of texts in your subject area and discuss how and why they communicate understanding effectively. Then provide scaffolding to give students an experience of success but be sure to remove it as soon as possible.
4. Intervene at the point of speech
I’ve written before about my simple theory of writing – essentially, students are only able to write what they able to say and only able to say what they can think. But, when students can say something, they can also write it. The problem is that many students are limited to what they’re able to say and know, at least implicitly, that what they’ve said won’t make sense on paper. They’re limited by only being able to express their thoughts in everyday English and unable to do so in academic English. Although we rarely notice it, spoken language is very different to written language. If you’ve ever tried to transcribe speech you’ll know exactly what I mean. Spoken language relies on tone, gesture and context to make sense but writing has to stand on its own. In order to make sense we’ve invented various artificial devices like spaces between words, punctuation, spelling, page numbers etc.
To compensate for students’ difficulties in writing down their thoughts teachers usually intervene with a writing frame or some other scaffold. The trick is to intervene at the point of speech and explicitly teach students to ‘speak like an essay’. Talk is cognitive and seems to be a particularly sticky way to remember something. If you change the way someone can speak you change the way they are able to think. If this process is carefully scaffolded (see #3) then students will find writing in academic language increasingly easy.
5. Proofreading makes perfect
My mum used to tell me that practice makes perfect. She was wrong. Practice makes permanent: what we practise we get good at. If students routinely make careless mistakes they well automate the process of making mistakes. I call this ‘The Capital Letter Problem‘. The solution is to make proofreading your minimum expectation for any written work students complete. If it’s not proofread, it’s not finished. If it’s not finished then there ought to be some sort of consequence. Building a culture of proofreading is simple but it can take hard work. I recommend giving students a straightforward code like this:
Then, all students should visibly annotate their work to demonstrate that it has met minimum expectations. One of the many benefits to this system is that if students identify where they have made mistakes they are making specific requests for feedback. It makes sense that when feedback has been solicited, students are far more likely to absorb and act on it.
None of these suggestions are magic and none of them is likely to work as well as they might in isolation. While I’m not suggesting that every teacher should use precious curriculum time to teach writing instead of content, I do think every teacher should understand that the language of their subject is intertwined with the content. While students might understand about plate tectonics, the rise of nationalism or the process of osmosis, if they can’t express this understanding in appropriate academic language they will struggle to be academically successful.
I’ve also written about the 5 most important things I think secondary teachers should know about reading.