If you tuned in to my session at Teach Meet English icons, you will know that I am working on how I approach the teaching of writing.
It is not something that I have found easy and much prefer the teaching of reading as a result. The reason I have found it difficult is because of the vast amount of knowledge and skill we need in order to be able to write well.
Trying to cover all of these in a 5 week unit to the depth required to produce the outcomes required is no mean feat.
But I am determined to do better when it comes to writing and so I have made writing a focus within my CTeach programme and have been reading more about writing, attending more writing webinars and trialling more approaches in my classroom.
And I am starting to make progress.
Here are some of the key takeaways from my most recent writing unit with year 9: Opinion columns
Have a range of mentor texts.
As a class we read opinion columns from Caitlyn Moran, Arwa Mahdawi, Grace Dent and Barbara Ellen amongst others. One mentor text is not enough. Pupils need to be exposed to different examples of the form to see the patterns of writing. We interrogated these as a whole but also in parts as well: the physical layout, introductory paragraphs, main paragraphs and the concluding paragraphs.
Allow choice in order to craft voice
All pupils had the freedom to choose the topics for their opinion column. For me, this is a win win. It is a win for the pupil because they get to write about a topic they feel passionate about, and, therefore, are invested in. And it is a win, for me, as a teacher, because instead of marking 25 pieces on the same topic, I am presented with a breadth of subjects which makes the marking process far more interesting.
Dedicate time to research.
Whilst my pupils had freedom of choice when it came to their subject matter, it was made abundantly clear on numerous occasions that they would be unsuccessful in convincing me of their opinion if they could not intelligently articulate their opinion. And this meant that they needed to be knowledgeable. In order to be knowledgeable, pupils need to conduct their research. We looked at the types of research that could be conducted and a framework for research was provided as was adequate time to conduct research.
Single paragraph outline (or single section outline)
Once pupils had their research completed, it was time for them to consider how they would organize their ideas. I have found the single paragraph outline invaluable for this. Identifying a core topic sentence and supporting details supports pupils in maintaining a clarity of focus in each section of their writing but also helps them to test out each idea to ensure it is weighty enough to be convincing and persuasive.
Section by section – knocking the presentational out first.
Some people might argue that focusing on presentational features is low tariff but for me if we are to create authentic texts, this is part of the process. It also provides success early on for all pupils as constructing the physical shape is a somewhat easier task. However, what it does also enable is the preparatory work for IGCSE when pupils have to explore a range of non-fiction texts and gives them a bank of structural features to look out for.
Section by section – the meat
Before the writing process each time, we would look at our mentor texts. We would deconstruct them in terms of content, and the layering of an argument in the main sections. We would deconstruct them in terms of style and the ways in which arguments were conveyed to identify patterns of language. We would deconstruct them in terms of structure and note / record examples of sentence structures we liked the look of.
Time to write
Pupils need to be given time to write and a good amount of time at that. I gave mine at least 4 lessons of writing. We would start each lesson by reviewing the work individuals had done the previous lesson. For example, I noted that lots of pupils were starting their sentences in the same way, so we did an exercise looking at how we could vary the starts of sentences and why that might be an effective thing to do. And then the rest of the lesson would be given over to them writing.
This is something I need to develop further so see below (and we went back into lockdown) but pupils were provided with a list of success criteria to check their work off against as a first port of call. This process of reflection is actually so vital in the writing process that it needs time, again, dedicated to it.
Share and celebrate
One of the loveliest things is to be able to share the work. At the end of each unit, I collate the pupils’ writing into an anthology which I send home to parents. It is the thing that year 9 parents commented upon the most at parent’s evening. Communication with parents can be fragmented but I have found this a simple way to keep parents in the loop about the work their children are doing. In addition, when pupils know their work will be seen, something magical happens. Finally, in collating the work, we are drawing attention to the success of the hard work and effort put in across the term.
Things I need to work on
- Meet with each pupil once they have constructed their Single Paragraph Outlines. Work it as recommended by Jennifer Webb as a kind of pitch but also to check the quality of arguments and opinions and the strength of the supporting details.
- Sentence instruction. This is the main area of weakness and something I have spoken to my HOD about. We need to plan a sentence instruction programme to support pupils with the crafting of their sentences, beginning with the difference between fragments and sentences and the basics of what a sentence is. I am inspired by the work of Kate McCabe with this and this is something I am going to work on in the summer term to have ready for September. As it stands, my y9 pupils still struggle with sentence construction and do not have a repertoire of sentences at their disposal.
- Provide wider reading booklets for homework so that pupils are avidly reading more and more opinion columns throughout this unit.
- Build in the ideas from Chris Curtis’ presentation at Teach Meet icons. Although, I do think statistics have their place, I would also like to consider the telling of a story or give greater weight to the emotional impact and how this drives the writing.
- More co-constructing to bridge between exemplars and own work. I need to be braver in co-constructing live.
- Build in an editing process. I did not put a word count on and having attended Jay Rayner’s wonderful webinar on opinion columns and having received over 26,000 words from my year 9s, I will now. Jay recommends 800-1000 and this will stand pupils in good stead for the iGCSE word counts.
- Greater attention paid to proof-reading process. I would like to interweave oral rehearsal during the writing process. I think when we read our work aloud, we begin to hear where our errors lie – especially our technical errors. I also like the work Shirley Clarke has done on peer critique and think this would work well here.
- Metacognitive reflection. I’d like pupils to actually produce a piece about their written piece in which they reflect upon the topic they chose, the process they went through, their intended impact, how they worked to achieve their intended impact and how successful they feel they have been.
- When I know what classes next year, I am going to construct my own long term plan. What I mean by this is I am going to teach the units on the long term plan – of course – but I know where I can speed up because absolutely, totally, I believe writing needs an appropriate amount of dedicated time.
So lots of work still to do but I feel like I am moving in the right direction. I have attached the some of the work of my pupils below.