Posted on: August 11, 2022
Though seemingly ‘natural’, writing proves devilishly difficult for far too many school pupils and closing this gap can have a lasting impact on their academic and life success. This article by Alex Quigley introduces 7 steps to improve children's writing that feature throughout his latest book Closing the Writing Gap.
1. Train teachers in the art and science of writing
Writing is the neglected 'r' in schools. As a result, teachers can lack confidence in teaching writing – especially when it comes to supporting struggling writers. Given writing is so central to school success, it has to be a priority for professional development. Schools can unlock the complexity of the writing process for their pupils and when writing becomes a school improvement priority, we begin to zero in on the knowledge and skills for better writing, and focus on improving pupils' outcomes.
2. Take advantage of talk and the rhetorical roots of writing
Teachers have been grappling with how to teach writing for thousands of years. Happily, it means that when we dig into the annals of history we can find insights for how to teach writing today. Indeed, we can stop focusing on electronic tablets and the future for solutions and instead turn back to the wax tablets of the ancient Romans for some answers! The Romans expanded their empire in part because of their ability to write and communicate with success. They perfected the art of rhetoric – those essential repetitions and rhythms of language that can imbue writing with power (do you know your anaphora from your anastrophe?).
3. Explicitly teach and model the stages of the writing process
Every teacher understands the power of planning and the necessity to edit and revise your writing for success. And yet, the nuances of teaching the writing process can quickly trip up teachers and pupils can resist the practice too (what pupils really want to plan and carefully edit errors in their writing?). It is crucial that we perfect the precise details of the writing process. For example, teachers (and pupils) need to understand the differences between 'editing' and 'revising' your writing. Editing describes the focus on error detection, such as spelling, grammar and accurate sentences. Revising is crucially different, as it describes making changes to the quality and content of your writing so that it meets the expectations of your audience. Pupils need to not just enact a cursory edit, or neaten up their handwriting; they need to craft and revise their writing with deliberate intent.
4. Offer pupils the gift of grammar, so that they can make informed writing choices
Is there a topic that can inspire more arguments and muddled thinking about writing than grammar? Once more, the issue rests with teacher knowledge and confidence in the teaching of grammar for writing. We can turn the clock back to dry grammar drills, but they are unlikely to improve writing. Instead, we can take an evidence-informed approach, such as promoting the LEAD approach (Link between grammar and writing; Explain grammar through examples; Authentic texts are explored; Discussion about grammar choices is undertaken), as developed by Professor Debra Myhill and colleagues. With a little more focus on grammar, we can make visible the seemingly hidden patterns of the academic writing that is so common in every classroom.
5. Concentrate on crafting great sentences
The game of writing is infinitely, and brilliantly, complex. And so, the shrinking down of that complexity to crafting sentences shouldn't work...but it does. Our pupils can be overloaded when writing paragraphs and full texts, so honing in on playing with sentence variations can help develop the style and substance of their writing in a more manageable way. Take 'sentence expanding'. This singular strategy to add words, phrases and clauses to sentences, can make for better writing in history (encouraging pupils to show off more of their knowledge), or in English, by expanding upon stylish details (such as adding in sensual descriptions to narrative writing). Let's then make a start by looking at shrinking, combining, expanding, and signposting great sentences.
6. Prioritise disciplinary writing
How do you write like a geographer? An artist? A historian? A scientist? Too often we try and teach writing like it is one monolithic entity, when in reality it is a changing, complex thing that subtly shifts in art annotation to history essays, writing poetry, or the writing up of an experiment. For too many pupils, the changing nature of writing in the different subject disciplines catches them out. We need to help pupils, from early on in primary school, to begin recognising the different language we use across the different subjects and begin to write in those specialist ways too. When we have a close focus on the language of science, for example, we can then characterise the specialist writing moves to teach.
7. Plan for focused feedback and assess writing excellence
Teachers are routinely overburdened by marking. Giving feedback on lots of quality writing practice invariably leads to more work for already busy teachers. As a result, we need to focus on feedback that is meaningful but manageable. Teachers need to be supported to use a range of manageable diagnostic assessments and to reduce the number of extended writing assessments. We return to where we began: training teachers in the dazzlingly brilliant art and science of writing.