I love reading and, as a result, I love teaching reading. Just this week, I got over-excited reading Oliver Twist with year 8, getting into character as the fight between Noah and Oliver ensued. I like that with reading it is slightly logical or methodical – we are looking for key things within texts and, to an extent, we have a structure that we can use to help pupils enhance their reading of texts. I’ve always found teaching writing much harder. Yes, there are the same nuts and bolts but, at some point, pupils need to pick the baton up and run creatively, something which is harder in my mind to teach.
Last year, Chris Curtis introduced the idea of the 200 word writing challenge which I adored. The idea of regular and deliberate practice with regard to writing I thought was incredibly powerful. And then James Theo, I think, suggested using literature texts as a stimulus and so with it came an incredibly powerful revision tool.
However, when our results came in, AO5 for writing was weak and this feeling of uncertainty reappeared within me: how do you guide pupils to structure their writing without inhibiting their creative freedom? How also do you embed a structure without leading them to write a narrative? Nick Wells, this year, has become my salvation. Nick blogged about a simple structural approach he has employed within his school: drop, shift, zoom in and zoom out. Read the blog here: https://englishremnantworld.wordpress.com/2017/09/30/we-bring-the-stars-out/
Knowing that literacy is an area of focus for us and pondering why our literacy mats over the past couple of years have disappeared, I decided to take this approach and use Nick’s model to produce a literacy mat for each desk using a different picture stimulus to guide pupils through the writing process. And then after seeing a superb idea on Twitter from a Geography teacher (sadly I can’t remember who this is), I decided to use each of these structural sections to pose key questions to support my pupils with their thinking and how they might respond to the image.
And then last week I attended the Salisbury Literary festival which was a superb event. Writers from all over including Philippa Gregory and Alex Wheatle attended the festival. Their love for writing got me thinking about writing too. I never write. Yet I teach writing. How can I teach writing, if I am not a writer myself? I mentioned this to an amazing colleague of mine, Olessia Doyle who then, off her own back, suggested setting up a writing club for staff before rolling this out to pupils.
On Wednesday, we had our first meeting. Attending without a piece, I listened to the pieces that had been written by staff. Olessia asked us to highlight any words / phrases and details we particularly liked and identify grammatical errors or clunky language that did not contribute to a convincing piece. We then discussed each piece in turn. I absolutely loved this. I loved the dialogue and the conscious thinking about our own writing that we were doing and the critique within a small but safe environment.
Which got me to thinking about how what we were doing here in our small staff group could be applied to what I do in the classroom. This led me to come up with the lesson structure below to tie everything I had come across in the past month or so and help my pupils with their writing.
In my ‘Do it now task’ I provided pupils with a picture stimulus and asked them to thought shower round the outside key words, key phrases and key questions they had about the picture.
I then took feedback, without comment.
I then introduced the drop, shift, zoom in and zoom out structure and used the literacy mats to talk through the example Nick had written.
To help pupils structure their response, I gave all my pupils a structure strip – a genius idea arrived at by Stephen Lockyer and Caroline Spalding – with the drop, shift, zoom in and zoom out structure. I posed key questions about the picture using these structural sections. When I had finished, I realised that actually I also needed to indicate some skills based content so added in sentence structures and literary devices I wanted them to try to use within their writing as well.
Pupils then had 20-25 minutes to begin their piece of writing with an aim of completing the drop and the shift. IMPORTANT POINT: I also wrote during this time. I am a terrible writer so this was so interesting for me to do and feel myself struggle alongside them. It was also really good for them to see. Here is what I came up with below for my drop paragraph:
The helmet of my head felt tight as I pondered the situation before me. Shifting my gaze to look at the monster towering above me, I could feel it tremble, increasing my anxiety. In instinct, I tugged on my rope: a safety net like the umbilical cord in the womb. I continued to ponder my situation. I had always had someone to fall back on, make decisions for me and, now, confronted by the unknown, I was feeling uncertain and at my most indecisive.
By the start of lesson 2, I will have photocopied everyone’s work and organised the work into packs of four and the pupils consequently into groups of four. (This time I went with mixed groups but I am also toying with setting groups according to their MEGs so could flip between the two)
The lesson began with pupils getting into their writing groups. Pupils were given 16 mins approx. to read each piece in turn, critiquing the writing that they have been presented. Their focus was specifically on the use of stylistic devices, the structure and organisation of their text and spelling, punctuation and grammar.
To support pupils, scaffolding for critiquing is displayed:
- Is there a particular word, phrase or sentence you really enjoyed when you read it? Why? What effect did it have on your as a reader or your understanding of the character or situation?
- What methods (simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration) has the writer used that you were particularly impressed by and why? What effect did it have on you as a reader?
- Does the imaginative piece flow? Are cohesive devices used to structure the text and guide the reader through?
Offering helpful feedback
- Has the person written enough? Has the work been paragraphed?
- Which words do you think could be improved and developed because they aren’t ambitious enough or because they don’t capture the character or situation well enough? Have any words been spelt wrong?
- Are there any errors with regard to punctuation that you can identify?
- Is there repetition of a particular sentence structure (not for effect) that could be improved?
As this feedback is being provided, the pupil whose work is being critiqued will use their green pen to show where feedback has been given and then respond to feedback when they continue with their writing time.
But as I write this, I am also thinking I am going to provide pupils with a tick box grid as well to staple to the work in terms of peer assessment. This can be completed as they are reading the work and listening to the piece.
Once pupils have fed back, they then returned to their desks to continue with their drop, shift, zoom in and zoom out paragraphs of writing in response to the stimulus. It is important, to me anyway, that the writing is done in silence.
At the end of the lesson, I asked pupils to complete their piece for homework and email to me.
Upon receiving emails from pupils, I began to see that the structure of their ideas had significantly improved and I was impressed with the level of descriptive detail. However, immediately I could see issues with technicality especially in terms of punctuation.
I decided to introduce a lesson 3 at this point. During this lesson, I used direct instruction to re-teach the use of commas to mark clauses and colons. Pupils were then given twenty minutes of deliberate practice writing time before returning to their piece to edit with these two specific details in mind.
HOWEVER, I think, upon reflection I am going to amend my approach. I am going to use the peer assessment sheet above and create a worksheet for each ‘technique’. This worksheet will cover the definitions and the rules for usage if applicable and then offer pupils the opportunity for some deliberate practice. But this will be done at home!
When pupils have received their peer assessment feedback sheet, pupils will choose a minimum of one area that has not been ticked or evidenced and they will choose that to be their area of focus for deliberate practice as part of their homework in an attempt for them to embed into their piece of writing which they would still complete and email for homework.
To celebrate their writing and promote writing across the academy, I knocked up a quick anthology structure and as pupils emailed me added their work to this. I have not amended or corrected their work as part of the anthology and I feel this is important that I don’t interfere with it. The anthology is then shared with pupils, parents, staff and is placed in areas such as reception, the library to celebrate the work they are producing. It is exciting for them to see each other’s work (and I am hoping will motivate some of my more reluctant writers to write more!)
Here is the first one from my year 11 class Cordelia:
With thanks to Chris Curtis, Nick Wells, Stephen Lockyer, Caroline Spalding and Olessia Doyle.