Saturday, 30 April 2016

How much should they write?

Recently, our Year 8s sat an exam and it was a big disaster. And I mean big. We decided to use one of the suggested exam papers from AQA: students had to write a creative response to a picture. We were expecting students to write a nice little story about the picture, but no: at least, 50% of the year group decided they needed to analyse the picture. Students decided to explore each nuance of the picture. The colour suggests that it is… The gesture on his face implies that… The whole experience was embarrassing to mark and watch unfold. Half of the year group got it and the other half didn’t.

Like all teachers, I started searching for the problem and I revisited one thing I have had on my mind for a long time: how we teach students to write in secondary schools. Previously, our Year 8 students had been studying Macbeth, so they were obsessed with analysing all the time. Therefore, they felt that was what the exam was asking them to do. After all, this is what their teachers had been concentrating on in lessons.

Personally, I think there are two problems with writing in schools and I know that they are common to most, if not all schools.
Problem 1: We don’t make students write a lot in schools.
I made my daughter copy out some spellings this week and I had to laugh as they did the typical ‘shaking hand after writing’. According to them, they had clearly written too much. There are several things that stops teachers from making students write pages and pages. I feel there are two things affecting how students write: marking; and engagement. There is an unwritten assumption that if a student writes something, then a teacher must mark it. Based on that logic, it would be in the teacher’s best interest if they get students to write less often, then they would have less to mark and be able to cope with the demands of teaching  Wow, the marking in the book is great, but hang on there’s only two detailed pieces of writing here for the whole year.

Engagement has always been a stick to beat a teacher with. How many teachers in the past have avoided prolonged moments of writing because they were being observed? Even this week with Year 11s, I was about to apologise to students for making them do another practice question. I stopped myself and thought: no, they need it. There seems to be a lot of guilt over making students write and write for long periods. I’m sorry about this, but you are going to write. I’ll make it up to you next lesson when we can do something different. We have been conditioned to feel that getting students to write for long periods is bad teaching, when in reality it is good teaching. All the flashcards in the world are not going to improve a student’s performance if they can’t write at length for long periods.

The drawback of this fear of writing is that too much emphasis is placed on end of unit assessments. We are becoming slowly aware that some students selectively crank up the effort when it matters. Students will float through work lesson by lesson with a pinch of effort, but when we introduce the idea of assessment, students transform and work their hardest ever. Persistent hard work is much better than sporadic work, but am I part of the problem? Do I place too much emphasis on the assessments and not enough emphasis on the writing before the assessment?

I fear that our relationship with writing in schools makes it, either a thing to be feared, or a thing to be simplified. The more a student writes, the better the student’s writing will be. Therefore, we need more writing, fewer worksheets, and fewer tasks that replicate writing. Pen meet paper. Write.

Problem 2: How we teach writing
I have a lot of beef with how we structure the teaching of writing. We have reduced the writing process to blocks of understanding. And, there, for me, lies the problem. We have made the process of writing reductive. At the core of most English curriculums is a unit aimed at specific type of writing. It might be a unit on persuasive writing, or gothic writing. I should imagine that these topics will last weeks and will kill the enjoyment of writing. There might be some interesting texts chosen by the teacher, but I think the idea of teaching writing like this is so constricting and restricting the process of writing.

If I am honest, if I spent five weeks looking at persuasive writing and what other persuasive writers have done, the last thing I will want to do is write a piece of persuasive writing. I’d write anything but that. We treat teaching writing like the way we teach novels. We have an end point and the teacher feels duty bound to teaching everything about the genre of writing and then some.

Primary schools do a good job of teaching the genres. Students come to secondary schools able to adapt writing to a particular form. They might miss out on the subtleties of the form, but a five week unit will only serve to compartmentalise writing. Secondary school writing should focus on exploring different forms and exploring how students can copy and use of the grammatical structures and features of these types of writing.

Our insistence of text types and genre teaching has narrowed a curriculum that should be exploratory and diverse. Instead of teaching students about writing to advise, they should be just reading texts and attempting to recreate or make their own versions. Look at how we teach poetry to students. We tend to drop a poem into a lesson every so often. If I am at a loose end, I will dig out a poem. But, we never do this with non-fiction. Instead, we have a big song and dance about a topic on non-fiction and then kill enjoyment off with five weeks of studying it. I read non-fiction for pleasure, but only in short bursts. I read novels in longer bursts.

I want students to be good writers and I feel that the way we have taught writing has hindered this in the past. I always bemoan the lack of creativity from students when writing non-fiction, but I can’t blame them when we teach non-fiction writing in the most uncreative way possible. A student needs to read hundreds of different voices with a hundred different ways to structure a text and with a hundred different techniques and approaches to engage the reader. They will only experience that if they see different texts on a regular basis and not just a ten for a five week unit of work.

My attempt at resolving the problems:
Problem 1: We don’t make students write a lot in schools.

I have stopped making students stick things in books. I have stepped away from the photocopier and I am changing how I get students to do things. I want to place more emphasis on them writing. They are writing more than they have before and it shows in their books.

I started this several months with a class and they constantly write in lessons. They copy things out or write detailed pieces. In fact, every Friday they have a writing task, which is in addition to the normal topic. They have to write for thirty plus minutes on an aspect and they just write. They know they can’t ask me questions. They have a few pointers, but they have to write. At the end, they share mark each other’s work. If we have time, I read a few out and we comment on the effectiveness of each piece. One week they write a description. Another week a piece of non-fiction.

It surprised me how much they enjoyed the writing. But, what even surprised me even more was how creative their responses were. Spontaneous writing created effective writing. It allowed them to write without any constraints. Plus, it didn’t take me too long for me to spot problems and iron them out. More importantly, I was getting students to be independent writers, and they enjoyed it. I have yet to have a single moan. They like it.   

I want more writing in a week and I want it to be clear that the writing is work and thinking through ideas and concepts. I want students to see that writing is lessons is about providing food for the marking machine called a teacher. It is there to make them think, breathe and develop as writers.

Problem 2: How we teach writing
I am re-evaluating the units of work for next year, so that the writing skills are across units or in short chunks. I am saying good bye to the long topics on writing and building the writing across terms so that the skills are revisited often, but the duration of them is short.

In addition to this, my plan is to build up my bank of non-fiction texts. Non-fiction writing will be inspired by particular texts rather than genres. One text or a pair of texts will be the starting point for writing and we will avoid the death by non-fiction anthologies favoured by so many. We will explore and analyse a text and then write. Their text might be a reaction to the original one or an attempt to write a similar one on a different topic. But, what I am sure of, is that they will have lots of practice.

Finally, over the year students will have written a number of non-fiction texts, then at the end of the year I am going to get students to select their best. That one will be redrafted and submitted as their assessment for the year. Hopefully, over the year we will see a range of texts, styles and approaches.   

One thing I am determined to do: make students work harder than teachers. For too long, teachers have worked harder than students. I am determined to make students work hard and harder. To do that, I think they need to write more in lessons. Their books should show crafting and drafting.

I need to stop writing now as my hands hurt.

Thanks for reading,



  1. I've recently stopped using worksheets and getting pupils to write more (with my Year 7 classes only at the minute). There's a lot more copying involved which means we 'cover' less in the lesson which has caused me a few reservations. I see the benefit of it and I have seen pupils take much greater pride in their work as I'm emphasising presentation and so on but a significant amount of time has been spent drawing out tables or copying out information.

    Is there a limit to how much we should be doing?

    As an example, I had a History task looking at the consequences of the event. Pupils numbered the consequences in the textbook and wrote the numbers on a diagram showing whether they were immediate, short-term or long-term before then deciphering which were positive/negative with a view to examining whether the event was a success/failure. They then copied the statements in full below the diagram from the textbook.

  2. I think a sensible balance is needed, but we have got to the point where we rush things for fear of not covering everything. This forces us to water down the learn. We need to slow down and teach effectively. Plus, we need to train them to write. You are training them. Keep it up.

  3. I would love to see your annual term plan and how everything is laid out. What assessment policy do you use?


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