Literacy empowers (Pt5): Teaching writing

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

This is the final part of a 5-part series.  Read parts one, two, three and four first.

In this series I am making the case for literacy as a whole-school concern, arguing – as George Sampson did – that: “Every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English.”

This is the final part. So far I’ve argued that literacy across the curriculum should:

  • Involve all teachers in using language to promote learning in their subject.
  • Identify the particular needs of all pupils in reading, writing, and speaking and listening.
  • Make strong links between the school and the home.
  • Plan for the longer term, emphasising the integral relationship between language for learning and effective teaching in all subjects.

In short, literacy learning – if it is to be done properly – should move beyond merely displaying key words or marking written work for SPaG, and focus on these three strands:

1. Speaking and listening (or oracy).
2. Reading.
3. Writing.

In the third part of this series I focused on speaking and listening and said that it was, among other things, about developing pupils’ abilities to: listen and respond to others (adding to or arguing against), speak and present (with increasing formality), participate in group discussion and interaction, and engage in drama, role-play and performance.

Last week I looked at reading and said that it was about developing the ability to: decode increasingly complex and challenging words across the curriculum, read for meaning, understand a writer’s craft, read and engage with a wide variety of texts, and research for a wide range of purposes (see further information for a link to these previous pieces).

This week, let’s turn our attentions to writing.

What is writing?

Writing is about developing the ability to:

  • Generate, plan and draft ideas for composition.
  • Select, shape and construct language for expression and effect in composition.
  • Proof-read and redraft written work, drawing on conventions and structures.
  • Use accurate grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Writing has traditionally been one of the weakest areas of literacy teaching because, all too often, teachers assume that imparting knowledge – making sure pupils know stuff – is enough.

In reality, of course, the most common and effective means by which most knowledge is demonstrated and assessed – whether that be in exams or through controlled assessments and coursework, class and homework – is through pupils’ writing.

Writing, therefore, needs to be taught by every teacher who uses writing as a means of demonstrating and assessing learning.

This is not a case of asking teachers to do anything technical or beyond their comfort zones, it’s simply about helping pupils to write like a designer or artist or musician or historian or mathematician or scientist and so on…

Teaching writing by reading

The quality of pupils’ writing is usually better when it emerges from reading other people’s writing. That doesn’t mean simply displaying a good model of a text on the board, however. Rather, it involves:

  • Modelling: sharing information about a text.
  • Joint construction: working with pupils to create a text collaboratively.
  • Independent construction: pupils constructing a text in a new genre independently of others, albeit with support.
  • Active teaching of vocabulary and sentence structures.

However, here’s a word of warning: we can’t teach writing simply by showing model texts, even if we annotate them to show what makes them work. Instead, we teach writing by writing…

Teaching writing by writing

If we simply show writing exemplars on the board, we are in danger of giving pupils the mistaken impression that writing is a product rather than a process.

Pupils need to see that writing is something that involves making decisions and, for that matter, making mistakes. Pupils need to see their teacher – and that means their teachers in all subjects – writing. This might involve some of the following approaches.

Contemplating the “what” and the “how” of a text: what is its purpose and who is its audience? The answers to those questions will affect how the text is written both in terms of its language and its presentation.

Examining the conventions of a text: again, this is both in terms of language (formality, style, sentence structure, etc) and presentation (paragraphs, sequence, bullet points, images, etc).

Demonstrating how the text might be written: this involves pupils observing the teacher as they “think aloud”, explaining the decisions they take. For example, thinking aloud might sound like this: “I need to write this like a historian would write it. It will need to be in the third person, so ‘he/she’ and ‘they’ not ‘I’. It will need to be formal not colloquial but not too stuffy either, it has to be accessible to a wide audience. Now talk to your partner about what your first sentence might say.

Then we’ll listen to some of your examples and compare them with what I write down.” This articulation moves from modelling to composition to assessment.

Writing a text while providing a running commentary: this involves explaining the decisions that are made, and how words are selected and rejected.

Strategies in more detail

First, let’s consider how we might help pupils to write texts appropriate to their audience and purpose. We could use a sequence for teaching writing such as:

– Establish clear aims: APT (audience, purpose, technique).
– Provide examples of the text type being produced.
– Explore the main features of presentation and language in the example text.

Then we could read and discuss word, sentence and text-level features and define the conventions of the text type being produced – agree on the main “ingredients” for this kind of writing. We could demonstrate how a text is written by modelling the thought processes (thinking aloud) and compose a text (or the introduction to a text) together as a class.

We could also scaffold pupils’ first attempts – e.g. use writing frames, lists of key words, the beginnings of sentences – and provide time for pupils to write independently.

Second, let’s consider how we might help pupils to sequence and structure information, ideas, and events effectively. We could, for example, model the planning process for pupils, introducing them to a variety of writing frames including templates for note-making.

We could teach the main features of different text types (e.g. instructions are chronological). And we could make explicit a sequence for planning which might include:

– Write initial thoughts and ideas on sticky notes or cards.
– Identify key words or phrases which need to be included.
– Draft the topic sentences and/or sub-headings.
– Organise these sentences/sub-headings into a logical sequence.

We could also use visual organisers such as flowcharts, mind maps, graphs and tables, in order to support the planning and writing process.

Third, in order to help pupils construct paragraphs and to make links within and between paragraphs, we could share a paragraphed text with pupils and ask them to identify why each paragraph starts where it does. We could share a paragraphed text with pupils and ask them to give each paragraph a sub-heading which summarises the subject of the paragraph.

Fourth, to help pupils vary their sentences for clarity, purpose and effect, we could encourage them to change the openings of their sentences. For example, we could ask them to write a text in which at least one sentence:

  • Starts with a verb ending in “ing”.
  • Starts with a verb ending in “ed”.
  • Starts with an adverb ending in “ly”.
  • Starts with a preposition, e.g. over, at, on.
  • Starts with an adjective, e.g. cold and weary they sank.

We could encourage pupils to vary the lengths of their sentences, too.

For example, we could ask them to write a text in which there is at least one:

– Simple sentence.
– Compound sentence.
– Complex sentence.

We could also encourage pupils to vary the purpose of their sentences.

For example, we could ask them to write a text in which there is at least one:

– Declarative sentence.
– Exclamative sentence.
– Inquisitive sentence.
– Imperative sentence.

And we could encourage pupils to use a range of connectives which go beyond “and”, and to use connectives in order to:

– Combine sentences.
– Start sentences (with a comma).
– Link sentences and paragraphs.
– Express thinking more clearly.

Fifth, we could help pupils to write with accurate syntax and punctuation in phrases, clauses and sentences by giving them a series of sentences written in “hangman” style with underscores and punctuation but no letters and ask them identify the sentence types.

We could also get pupils to use sequencing when reviewing and previewing learning to get used to using time prepositions such as:

– Before last lesson, I knew…
– During last lesson, I learnt…
– Since last lesson, I found out…
– By the end of this lesson, I want to know…

What’s more, we could give pupils a text and ask them to highlight the main and subordinate clauses in different colours and then explain the effect. And we could give pupils three complex sentences which make different uses of main clauses and subordinate clauses (main + subordinate, subordinate + main, and main + embedded subordinate) and ask them to identify the different clauses and explain their answers.

Sixth, in order to help pupils to select appropriate and effective vocabulary, we could teach the use of synonyms – e.g. identify a word in a sentence and ask pupils to think of a list of alternative words which have the same meaning. This will improve their vocabulary and the quality of their writing. We could focus on providing alternatives for high frequency words such as “said” and “walked”.

We could also get pupils to play word detectives using thesauruses and dictionaries to find the meaning of words.

Finally, in order to help pupils to use the correct spelling, we could teach them how to:

  • Break words into sounds/phonemes (p-a-r-t-y).
  • Break words into syllables (dem-oc-ra-cy).
  • Break words into an affix/root word (un + happy).
  • Use a mnemonic (Big Elephants Can Always Upset Small Elephants for BECAUSE or one Collar two Sleeves for neCeSSary).
  • Refer to different words in the same family (chemical, chemist, chemistry).
  • Over-articulate silent/hidden letters (Wed-nes-day).
  • Identify words within words (GUM in argument).
  • Refer to a word’s etymology/history (tri = three, pod = foot).
  • Use analogy (through, rough, enough).
  • Use a key word (I’m – to remember an apostrophe can replace a missing letter).
  • Apply spelling rules ( hopping = short vowel sound, hoping = long vowel).
  • Learn by sight (look-say-cover-write-check).
  • Use a “mind palace” of visual memories (recall images, colour, font).

Quick wins

To conclude, here are three quick wins for developing pupils’ writing skills:

  • Model how to write the first paragraph of an essay/evaluation/description, etc.
  • Teach the essential connectives of writing, such as however, because, as, so, although, while, despite, on the other hand.
  • Encourage pupils to use short sentences at the start and end of paragraphs.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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