Sunday, 9 December 2012

Why use two words when one will just do? Pushing a Level 6 and 7 student's writing

This week I am going to cheat a bit and use something I have already prepared for a meeting with a primary head teacher.  It has been, for me, a week of meeting after meeting, endless mock marking and a wedding – oh, and the Christmas staff party! Hardly surprising that I am more tired than a dozy grandfather who falls asleep through conversations and snores regularly through most television programmes.

I have always had a problem with some aspects of teaching writing. Namely, purple prose. Or, flowery prose, as I like to call it. You could, for example, have a crap garden, but you insist it is still a  ‘nice garden’ by using loads of flowers in plant pots. The pots look nice, but the garden is still crap. The same, I feel, happens with writing. Put X, Y, Z and another X, Y and Z into your short story - there, you have a wonderful piece of writing. Umm, no you don’t. You might have some features of good writing, but there rest is incoherent and it is a little over the top.

Recently, I have taught David Almond’s ‘Skellig’ and I casually asked the class about level of the writing that Almond had produced. The class simply replied that it was a low Level 5 (sorry, Almond). There, I think, lies the problem. Their understanding of writing was based on writing that is crammed with every technique under the sun. Furthermore, there was no hope that it would get a Level 6, as Almond hadn’t even used a semicolon on the pages were studying.
Good writing is not about using every tool in the box. It’s about using the right tool for the job. One of my favourite writers is Susan Hill. She is a fantastic and her writing is deceptively simple as each sentence is precise and the writing is so concise. Techniques aren’t wasted and the language is carefully crafted and selected for the maximum effect. On the other hand, there are writers like Alan Hollinghurst who have pages and pages of detailed and evocative writing. Now, I like Hill, and I like Hollinghurst, but which one is best? There is only one way to find out: fight!

But, I do think this contrast lies at the heart of English teaching.  Flowery or sparse? As teachers, we have to be aware of this. Chucking everything in the melting pot doesn’t make the best kind of writing. Maybe, we should spend more and more time on looking at selecting the best techniques for the job, rather than introducing new and obscure techniques for the sake of teaching something new.  I have sat there planning, scratching my head, trying to think of something new, when I should have been focusing on what they knew and developing that further. That is where Level 6s are going. They can do stuff and do it well. Now, they need to work on doing it exceptionally well by being subtle and discreet.

Most Level 5 writers are always asking, ‘What can I add to make this better?’, so maybe, we should explicitly teach Level 6s the following questions:

  • What can be removed which doesn’t affect the overall effect of the writing?
  • Are there any techniques that have the same effect as each other in a paragraph?
  • Have you made sure that a technique is only used once in the writing?
  • Do you need to show or tell in this paragraph?
  • Are we writing for clarity? Or are you writing for detail?

The following is a list is cribbed from my talk with a primary school. It was aimed at helping teachers build some ways into their teaching, which help students achieve or secure a Level 6/7. At this level we are dealing with the subtleties of language, so it is quite hard to separate things down to a single aspect, but I have tried.  

  • Humour  - satire, parody, irony
Teach students about the different types of humour, or show them examples, so that they can use bits of them in their own writing. These kinds of writing involve students being playful and creative with language.

  • Structure – cohesion / cohesive devices across a text
Look at how the whole text is structured. Is there cohesion between parts of the texts? Are there ideas that are linked between paragraphs?

  • Flair /Style  
Students at Levels 6 and 7 are starting to develop a particular voice in their writing. It is quite hard to teach this explicitly, but getting students to emulate another writer’s style may help them with their own choices. For example, write in the style of Phillip Pullman or J.K. Rowling.

  • Original sentence construction – over reliance of the same structures
Students can lack flair if their sentences are repetitive. Get them to use a particular sentence construction only once in their writing, unless it is to create a particular effect. Or, get them to steal some sentences (change a few words, of course) from a writer and adapt them to their own writing.

  • Sophisticated level of use of punctuation
The ‘Punctuation Pyramids’ are great, but some Level 6s and 7s need guidance to use colons and semicolons effectively. Usually, a colon can introduce an idea, but it can also be used to create tension. Show them how it can be used to create tension.

  • Variety
 A piece of writing that varies pace, tone, detail, punctuation usage or perspective throughout will achieve a higher level. A Level 5 will tend to keep their tone constant throughout the piece of writing.

  • Being concise and precise
Good writing isn’t always the most detailed and descriptive writing. Students need to explore their choice of words. Why use that word? Sometimes, a simple word is much more effective than a polysyllabic word.

  • Looking at natural speech
I have noticed that Level 6s and 7s often demonstrate writing that naturally emulates natural speech in the use of pauses, emphasis, tone and other aspects. If we explored these explicitly in writing more, students may pick these up. However, it is knowing when to follow the rules of speech and when to ignore the rules of writing that is really the skill here.

Most English teachers will agree with me when I say that you cannot teach a writer to be an outstanding writer. It is something writers learn to be, by themselves. Most writers will read, read and read to pick up ideas, skills and techniques. Part of becoming a Level 6 or Level 7 is absorbing some of the subtle complexities of language through the reading of good writing. They copy, mirror or adapt these and use them in their own work. This isn’t always something that you can directly teach. They just do it.

Thanks for reading,







  1. Some really good points here. I hate that (at GCSE especially) we seem to be teaching that a good story is one in which nothing happens but there is a veritable ton of over description. Encouraging editing (what can you take out?) as you've suggested here would be good for a lot of KS3 writers.

  2. Yes, less is definitely more, and this is a hard thing to teach. Some great tips here. I love reading Susan Hill, too, for her stories, but her comma splices DRIVE ME MAD..... I was reading 'I'm the King of the Castle' with a year 9 group last term and while they were reading I could see they were a little puzzled, too. And so they should be!

  3. I totally agree with you about comma splices. I am always telling students not to use a comma to seperate sentences. DRIVES ME MAD TOO!



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