As literacy and academic writing have been propelled into the spotlight over recent years, the ability of our students to write coherently has become even more important.
Numerous strategies, courses and resources have been delivered and shared as teachers seek to improve. An influx of word mats, PEED posters, literacy mats and pages in student planners have all been added into subject areas to try and address any issues. These additions all have their place and are fighting a good cause but can we simplify this and make developing written responses part of how we teach, rather than something we add onto it? As a colleague of mine once said (and undoubtedly borrowed from elsewhere), “We are all teachers of English”. With this in mind, what simple strategies are there that we can use to get the ball rolling? Are there things we can do through our teaching to help students develop their written communication? How can we help our learners at a non-specialist level* improve the way in which they write? Hopefully, the following ideas may get you started:
If we are to get our students to begin to take a step towards academic writing, they first need to take a step away from writing as they speak. A number of students that I have worked with can verbalise or even write what they mean in a very sketchy way but frequently miss out the terminology needed to demonstrate the requirements of our subject. This lack of academic vocabulary can hold back the quality of the response.
Simple ideas to combat this could be:
- Planning to introduce key terms with meanings throughout lessons or schemes of work – Some students have a limited range of vocabulary compared to their peers and this gap can continue to grow throughout life. Specifically identifying key words and technical terminology that is not only shared but explained and then used in context can be a simple way to increase the range of word use.
- Keeping a glossary of terminology – A simple idea in which a spare few pages at the back of an exercise book can be transformed into glossary of key words. The key though is to ensure meaning is understood. Too many times I have seen students misinterpret a word and confuse its meaning in written responses.
- Focusing on these key words – sharing them and even getting students to write new vocabulary in a glossary or similar format is fine. As the teacher we need to not think of that as a job done but more importantly design opportunities for students to focus on using key words. This can come in the form of specifying words that ‘must be included in your sentences’ or even as simple as underlining/highlight these new words in use.
- Expanding general vocabulary – Bringing in new subject specific terminology is high on most teachers’ minds (especially in subjects like PE or Science) but do we sometimes focus on this subject specific element and forget standard vocabulary? Working with students to create ‘alternate words’ or synonyms for general language is very important and should be encouraged by us all. Making lists that students can select from can be a great way to expand their range of vocabulary. Simple things such as instead of using a word like ‘happened’, students select from a list including ‘transpired, occurred, ensued, materialised’.
- Introducing academic language – Through the introduction of carefully selected articles or high quality texts, students can begin to be exposed to an improved level of language. As a teacher, it is important to use these to pull out key vocabulary and explain the meaning and context in which they are being used.
Experts and excellent examples
In my personal experience, I have failed to get students to produce excellent writing because they simply don’t know what it looks like. They may understand the task and even have a plan at hand, but the quality of the writing is not as I had expected or predicted. Bringing in examples of excellence can be a powerful way to understand how experts write. If you are asking students to write a newspaper article, why not share and analyse ones written by professional journalists to understand the process of writing involved. Seeing how these writers use language is a great way to inspire and demonstrate high quality work. You could even take this one step further and bring experts into your classroom. Whilst working with a professional journalist with my Year 11’s last year, not only did the work at that moment in time improve, but the standard from then on went up. Picking her brain and having professional advice or critique was an experience worth investing time in.
Sentence starters – with a difference!
For a while now I have been very adverse to sentence starters. I always felt the ‘generic’ ones that were shared around were too flat and uninspiring. Essentially they provide a starting point for developing written responses, but I always felt they lacked challenge or freedom to be creative. Do they really make students think about what they are writing? Doug Lemov completely reversed my thinking with his post ‘At First Glance: A Sentence Starter Adds Unexpected Rigor to Writing’. In the post, Doug explains that taking the time to create challenging yet thought provoking sentence starters such as ‘At first glance….’ is a simple but powerful tool. The unusual three word prompt, chosen specifically to challenge students, allowed them to articulate some very high responses. What is the topic you are covering? What response do you want students to write? Can you create an interesting three word starter?
Four part process– defining words and creating beautiful sentences
Getting students to define and then craft beautiful sentences is a great skill. There are a number of fantastic methods to help students structure and support students in the process. One way that I have found incredibly effective is the four part process borrowed from Lee Donaghy. The process is excellent for defining a key term, idea or piece of terminology. It forces students to take this point and create a structured sentence from it, incorporating the definition and meaning. Students pick out the information being defined. They then select a verb or process that will help link it to the definition. The important element of the meaning is then added so that a full sentence can be read across the framework. The process isn’t just finished there though. The teacher models how to redraft it, constantly refining it so that the sentence becomes more academic in nature. The process of co-planning and coaching the students helps them understand the requirements needed to build this definition into a response of very high quality.
Break it down – Planning longer responses
A difficulty with writing is the inability to unpick what it is that the question is asking. I have had some of the most able students stumped with a task because they simply didn’t know what they needed to do or how they would go about doing it. Spending time modelling how to go about tackling a question is essential.
- What are the key elements – Share the question and ask students to discuss in pairs what the key features of it are. What is the question asking you to address? What key words are already prompting you to think of responses?
- What would your plan be? – Share the question and ask them to unpick the question and bullet point a quick (and very basic) plan. Bring these ideas to a discussion and model the best answers.
- Model, model, model – Project the question on a board and with the help of the students (and some great questioning), unpick the question as a class. Explain, challenge and discuss why some ideas might be more relevant than others.
- Do it yourself – Complete the task yourself and explain the process you took. Remember, this is done to inspire and not simply replicate. We want students to think for themselves and produce something unique.
- Get it all out – Mindmap, spider diagram or brainstorm ideas around the question. Branch off new and more developed chains of thought. Try and tie in key vocabulary as you go.
I.D.E.A – Writing longer responses
Writing frames can be incredibly beneficial to help structure long answer questions. Many people are familiar with PEED, but we use IDEA instead. The process asks students to following the following steps:
- I – Identify – The piece of information or aspect that they would like to talk about.
- D – Define/Describe – State the definition or describe the thing you are focusing on.
- E – Explain – In your own words, demonstrate that you understand the meaning.
- A – Apply – Relate it to an example or put it into context.
Students plan out their written response using the framework as a guide. When you combine the four elements, it produces the basis of a well thought out paragraph. For longer answer questions (like the AQA GCSE PE 8 mark questions), this process can be repeated a number of times to explore different points.
It is important to stress though that IDEA is the beginning of developing improved written responses. After students have sufficient skill in various techniques, the framework should be removed to allow students more creative freedom in their writing.
The re-drafting process
Work is always open for improvement and written responses need this as well. Students should be encouraged to have work reviewed and critiqued. Scaffold and model the process with students, carefully comparing it to precise success criteria or examples of excellence. The follow up process of re-writing and redrafting work allows for students to improve the quality of what they have written. The evolution of the work in front of them from specific feedback (as well as modelling) can be an exceptional strategy.
These ideas are simple starting points to get the process moving. They can be of great help at a basic level and can help students understand the requirements for writing. The ultimate aim above anything else though is encouraging students to feel confident enough to step beyond these strategies. Reaching the stage where students are encouraged to think hard about what they are writing is a goal worth aiming for.
*as a non-English teacher or literacy co-ordinator.