Teaching AQA Language 1 Question 4

Out of both AQA English Language papers, question 4 on paper 1 is the biggest and most valuable, containing more marks than any other reading question.

This blog outline some approaches that I have found to be successful.

Being successful at any form of extended writing involves being fluent (accurate and fast) in a range of different sub-skills, elements or components and I have written before about how the composite skill of extended writing can be split up and practiced .

So what are the components of this particular question? What sub-skills do students need to be proficient at if they are to write a good answer? Although students will probably need to have reached a knowledge crafting level of writing expertise to succeed, this post will focus on things specific to question 4 and the approaches assume that students have fluent transcription as well as sufficient background knowledge to access the text.

Approach 1: Start with Literature texts that they know well

Question 4 asks students to respond to a critical statement, something along the lines of: A student said ‘This part of the story, set during breakfast time, shows that Alex is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness’ How far do you agree with this statement?

Instead of beginning with unseen extracts, it can be useful to initially use literature texts so that students can focus solely on the approach needed for this question. If you have already taught the literature text, then students will already know the content that they are expected to use when attempting a Q4 style question. This essentially lowers the cognitive load as they have less information that they need to manipulate or hold in mind. If you begin with unseen extracts, students will not only have to grasp what the question is asking them (as well as the nuances that are required for high marks), but they will also have to maintain a coherent representation of the text in their minds so that they are able to select relevant information for their answer.

Here are some examples:

EXAMPLE 1: Teacher modelling

  1. Write the question on the board and give some oral examples as to how to answer it, modelling to students that they need to explain HOW the writer makes Mrs.Birling seem cold:

Mrs.B has a dismissive attitude and uses curt language like ‘impertinent’, making her seem cold. etc. etc.

2. You can then add other words to describe Mrs.Birling (red pen in the example) and give further oral examples:

Mrs.Birling is worse than cold; she is a spiteful woman who, through her disparaging language, denigrates and objectifies Eva, referring to her as ‘girls of that class’. etc.etc

Debating and discussing the key words in the statement by offering alternatives can help students to fully engage with the prompt as well as ensuring that they adopt a more nuanced and evaluative approach to the task. With this example, I came up with other words that students could use to lead their evaluation and analysis: spiteful, egotistical, opaque, sclerotic, ossified. Thanks to DiLeedham for suggesting this approach to me: it has been really successful in pushing HA kids towards full marks.

EXAMPLE 2: Guided Practice

  1. Write this second question on the board and ask students to discuss why Utterson is dull (analysis/evaluation) and how they know that (methods)
  2. Ask them for other words they could use instead of ‘dull’. In my example, all three of the red suggestions are vocabulary terms that they learned in the Jekyll and Hyde unit.
  3. They can then discuss why he is austere/authotitative/hypocritical (analysis/evaluation) and how they know that (methods)
  4. You can then ask for verbal answers checking that students engage with the prompt, analyse, refer to the text and include methods.

EXAMPLE 3: Same process as Example 2

Once these literature focussed examples have been completed, you could then compile a list of methods, demonstrating to the students that a method is any possible way that a writer expressed an idea, ranging from the microscopic and phonetic (things like ‘plosives’ and dashes) to the structural and macroscopic (things like transitions, sections and changes in focus).

Using Short Stories

You could then look at a question 4 based on a short story that you have already taught and discussed, again the advantage here being that students already know the content so they can focus on what question 4 requires them to do.

Here is an example that focusses on Helen Phillip’s phenomenal short story called ‘The Knowers.’:

The example above further outlines what q4 is asking them to do as well as continuing the idea of ‘debating/discussing the question words’ in order to encourage more nuanced responses.

As explained in this post , I would start with a model answer and annotate it to show students what they need to do:

You could then skip straight onto an unseen extract and accompanying question. A really good extract (and I can’t remember where I found it so please let me know so I can credit you!) is from ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ by T Boyle.

Here’s a question 4 for this extract:

A critic said ‘The Writer has created a tense and suspense filled scene’ How far do you agree.

After reading the extract, students can then write down other words that could be used to describe the scene: instead of ‘tense and suspense filled’, they may come up with ‘chaotic, exciting, nerve-wracking, fear-inducing etc’. You can then show another model answer, highlighting components in the first part like this:

….before asking the students to read the rest of the model, identifying the same components and using your annotations as an analogy.

Beginning with lots of modelling is always important so that students can understand exactly what it is you want them to do.

Approach 2: Break it down into Sequential Steps

While the approach above may work with higher ability students, some students will require you to break things down even further.

  1. Read and discuss a short story (The explanation below is based upon ‘Story of an Hour’ by Kate Chopin )

Short stories are often easier for students to understand than extracts. Because of this, they are ideal for the initial teaching of language questions. Although they won’t be able do this in the exam-and we all know that students who struggle with GCSE language are often those with insufficient background knowledge to understand the unseen extract that they have to read-in class, you can spend time checking for understanding, explaining and ensuring that they know what happens.

2. Focus on the question

This part of the text where Mrs Mallard reacts to the news of her husband’s death makes us feel both pity and joy for her. To what extent do you agree?

Students need to understand that the question is a prompt that directs them to find relevant evidence and steers their response. You could underline the key words and then demonstrate how to find evidence that fits them. To model this, the teacher could find things that fit ‘pity’ like this:

Showing them how to do this under the visualizer allows them to see the process in action.

You could then ask them to find things to fit ‘joy’:

As you have already demonstrated HOW to do this under a camera, they should know what they are expected to do and should be able to find relevant evidence.

Even with lower ability students, it can still be useful to get them to debate the question words by looking for evidence that supports another interpretation of the woman’s actions:

These two quotations could be seen as evidence that she is callous; equally, they could make us feel horrified rather than piteous or joyful.

With lower ability students, it is really useful to outline non-examples so they know what not to do in this question. I find that some students slip into writing advice to the character instead of engaging with the question properly:

Addressing these misconceptions before students begin writing makes it far more likely that they won’t do this!

While more able classes could cope with whole models, I would split up the answer for lower ability groups so that they are not overwhelmed:

  1. Show how to engage with the question:

Once you have shown students how to engage with the question through a model like the one above, you could ask them to rewrite it in their own words. This will be very close to mimicry but that may be an important first step on the journey towards flexible knowledge. Later practice opportunities could use the alternation strategy where students use your model as an analogy rather than something to directly emulate.

2. Create a diagram that describes the answer:

3. Show how this abstraction can be realized as writing:

You could then ask students to label the rest of a model answer, checking whether they understand what is required.

Approaches that will be important whatever the level of the class:

  1. Lots of modelling at the start so students know what to do.
  2. Lots of distributed practice, moving closer and closer to examination timings and combining practice with other reading questions too so as to build examination stamina.
  3. Asking students to check their own work for key elements: METHODS + EVIDENCE + ANALYSIS/EVALUATION

Short Stories 5

This is the fifth post in this series. You can find the others here: one, two, three, four.

Here are some more short stories that I have enjoyed reading and teaching:

Strawberry Spring by Steven King

One of King’s earlier works, this story explores a number of mysterious killings that plague a local town and university campus. It has a good twist at the end.

The Street Sweeper by Meron Hadero

Shortlisted for the 2021 Caine prize, Hadero’s story reveals the strange world of NGOs and governmental agencies and how they impact upon the country that they work within. Getu, the main character, is a translator and fixer for international aid workers and the story focusses on the invisible barriers that separate him from his employers.

That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Exploring the nature of stereotypes and culture shock, this story follows a young Nigerian who emigrates to the US only to find herself disappointed by her new country.

Reports on the Shadow Industry by Peter Carey

Carey has created a dystopian society where people chase after ‘packaged shadows’. A critique of consumerism and capitalism, it encourages us to question our obsession with material goods and the disposable nature of modern life.

We Ate The Children Last by Yann Martel

Martel has written a surreal story that not only asks questions about the limitations and ethics of science, but also explores the fickle nature of humanity.

The Frolic by Thomas Ligotti

A psychiatrist moves with his family to a new town. As he explains talks to his wife about one of his most disturbed patients, a child-abductor, they realize that they have made a big mistake.

A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka

The unnamed artist travels from town to town, attempting to impress people with his ability to starve himself. Unfortunately, his popularity is waning. Kafka’s story explores the themes of pride and artistic devotion.

The Deep by Anthony Doerr

Tom is a young boy with a heart condition that means he will die before he reaches adulthood. This often poignant story explores what it is that makes life worth living.

Marriage Lines by Julian Barnes

In this touching story of grief and loss, a recently widowed man returns to a Scottish Island where he and his wife used to spend their holidays.

Reading and Writing: A Reciprocal Relationship

If you were to choose the best writers from a group of students, I would bet heavily that they are also avid readers. Pupils who read widely and regularly are often better at writing than pupils who rarely read at all. Timothy Shannahan  points out that 70% of the variance in reading and writing ability is shared. This strong correlation points to a reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. Combining instruction, therefore, can be immensely beneficial and this is because reading and reading instruction can help pupils to improve their writing and vice versa.

But why is this? What is the link between the two modalities?

Shared Knowledge Theory

According to this framework, both reading and writing rely upon the same body of knowledge. As Steve Graham puts it:

‘We write so others will read, and we read what others write’

There are four main knowledge sources that pupils rely upon for both reading and writing:

  1. Domain Knowledge

Pupils who know more about a text are more likely to comprehend what they are reading. Knowledge is important for writing too: it is far easier to write about a topic that you know a lot about.

2. Metaknowledge

This includes knowing the function and purpose of reading and writing and how readers and writers interact. Writers, if they are to be truly effective, need to write with a reader in mind , ensuring that what they write is suitably pitched and coherent. If students are to read effectively, they need to develop and employ a high standard of coherence in that they need to care about whether a text makes sense to them or not. Similarly, if students are to write well, they need to care about and monitor the ideas that they generate and how they are turned into sentences.

3. Knowledge about Texts

Knowledge about the function and purpose of texts is crucial for both modalities. When reading, this knowledge might assist with interpretations, helping pupils to notice the tone or mood of a piece. When writing, pupils use it to ensure that what they are writing fits the task at hand. For novices, this knowledge is best built up by studying worked examples. Pupils should experience a high volume of reading at school and they should regularly deconstruct relevant exemplar texts in order to better understand what it is that makes them effective. Understanding is often predicated upon conceptual depth and breadth and this can be achieved by teaching through examples.

4. Knowledge of universal text attributes

To read and write effectively, students need to know their Grapheme Phoneme Correspondences. When reading, this knowledge allows them to decode and correctly pronounce written words; when writing, it aids accurate spelling. Reading and writing also rely upon syntactical knowledge or the rules and grammar for composing sentences and using punctuation. Finally, knowledge of text structures, formats and organisational elements like the relationships between graphics, diagrams and text underpins both modalities.

5. Procedural Knowledge

This involves knowing how to set goals, retrieve relevant information from long term memory and employ higher level strategies like questioning, drawing analogies, analysing and summarising. When reading, these can be used to aid comprehension; they can also make writing more focussed as students regulate the writing process.

Rhetorical Relations Theory

According to this theory, reading and writing are forms of communication, each involving a conversation between readers and writers. Expert writers produce texts in a constant interaction and conversation with an imaginary reader. Skilled readers do the opposite as they try to tease out or analyse the absent author’s intentions or purpose. This theory proposes that these dialogues help students to develop new insights and knowledge. By reading closely and paying attention to specific word choices and turns of phrase, a reader may acquire new knowledge about writing as they realise how a writer employs specific techniques or achieves certain effects. Similarly, writers may gain new insight into reading as they juggle mental representations, striving to compose text that will appeal to a reader.

Empirical Support

Writing Instruction Improves Reading

The theories above suggest that this is true but what is the empirical support for these ideas? Graham and Hebert (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of 95 true and quasi-experiments and here is a summary of their findings:

Spelling instruction can improve reading fluency and enhance word reading

Teaching students how to spell provides them with the necessary knowledge about how sounds and letters connect, allowing them to recognise and decode words that contain taught grapheme phoneme correspondences. The process of connecting and building from the smallest units of letters to words and then sentences is likely to provide them with further advantage when reading.

If you write about what you have read, this can help with comprehension.

Richard E Mayer, one of the authors of Learning as a Generative Activity, would explain this benefit through his SOI model of generative learning:

  1. Select relevant information
  2. Organise it into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrate it with relevant prior knowledge from long term memory

When asked to write about a text, students have to engage in all 3 stages of cognitive processing. If all three stages are successfully engaged, then it is likely that they will understand what they have read. There are, however, many things that may preclude this from happening such as a lack of relevant prior knowledge or the fact that the text contains too many unfamiliar words.

Graham and Hebert found that note-taking, answering questions, writing summaries or writing extended answers can all aid comprehension. Interestingly, they found that the benefit was greater for middle school students compared to high school students.

Reading Improves Writing

Students who read a lot tend to be good at writing but is this assumption also supported by empirical findings? Graham et al (2018) conducted a meta-analysis of 92 true and quasi-experimental studies that examined whether reading and reading instruction improved students’ writing. Here’s a summary of the findings:

Increasing how much students read can result in an improvement to their writing

Reading allows students to acquire new knowledge and understanding about how texts have been written. Students will be exposed to a wider range of sentence structures and vocabulary, some of which will rarely exist in speech or functional written communication. Similarly, students who read more will be used to thinking about and considering word choices, effects and intentions.

If students read and analyse the work of their peers, this can improve their writing

When giving feedback on extended writing, I almost always show a couple of good pieces under the camera and we discuss what makes the writing effective. This can be really powerful, demonstrating to the class that what I have asked for really is achievable, and giving a massive confidence boost to the person who is being praised. As well as deconstructing whole pieces, I often draw a star next to exceptional sentences in different books, noting the names down in my class exercise book. These pupils are asked to read out their brilliant turns of phrase and the class are invited to explain why the sentence is so effective.

Finding a Balance

A curriculum that involves lots of challenging and varied reading as well as providing lots of opportunities for pupils to practise their writing is probably on the right track. However, for a curriculum to be maximally effective, it also needs to focus upon the relevant components that make up the composite skills of reading and writing. Novice writers will benefit from increasing the volume of their reading, but they will also benefit from writing fluency practice, sentence level instruction and strategy instruction. Novice readers, who do not decode securely, will also benefit from being read to as this will help build their background knowledge which will then aid comprehension. They will, however, also need systematic instruction that focusses upon the components of reading, if they are to clear up their decoding problems.

Many of the ideas in this post are based upon ‘The Sciences of Reading and Writing Must Become More Fully Integrated’ by Steve Graham (2020)

Writing: The Case for Deliberate Practice

One of the main goals of teaching English is to help pupils become better at writing. Expert writers seem to be able to write with minimal effort. They write quickly, accurately and effectively, their sentences well-constructed, their ideas expressed with clarity, producing texts that appeal to the reader whilst also being suited perfectly to the task at hand. This is, however, no easy feat: expert writing involves the control of cognitive, perceptual and motor processes, each of which has become relatively effortless, most likely through extended and deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice can help to reduce the attentional demands of particular processes. Simple perceptual-motor processes can, through deliberate practice, become completely effortless. If you have ever trained in a particular sport, you will recognize this process of automisation. I play football and, as a result of sustained deliberate practice, do not have to think about the position of my feet, the angle of my leg or where my foot will meet the ball when kicking. Someone who has never kicked a ball before will need to concentrate on all of these things. The sheer number of things to consider (and we haven’t even talked about positioning or anything to do with other players) will mean that this may be a difficult task to execute proficiently and consistently. Writing, however, is not a simple perceptual-motor process and in my last post, I attempted to outline its complexity. Because of this complexity, effective writing instruction should seek to reduce rather than entirely eliminate the relative effort required for each of the components and processes involved.

Deliberate practice can do exactly that. By reducing the attentional demands on the components, it can free up pupil’s attention so that they can concentrate on the whole performance, allowing them to respond flexibly and effectively to the task at hand.

Real Life Case Studies

Isaac Asimov, one of the most distinguished and prolific writers of science fiction, wrote almost 500 books in a career that spanned more than 40 years. A study (Ohlsson 1992) explored Asimov’s writing career in an attempt to draw inferences regarding the effects of practice. The study split his oeuvre into groups of 100 books. Although the books would obviously vary in length and complexity, the researchers assumed that this would roughly average out. Asimov completed his first 100 books in 237 months; his second 100 books in 113 months; his third 100 books in 69 months and his fourth in 42 months. His writing sped up significantly as his career progressed and it seems reasonable to attribute this improvement to practice and increasing expertise.

A second study (Raskin 1936) found that scientists and authors produced their best work in their mid-30s, ten years or so after their first publications. In a study of poets (Wishbow 1998), researchers found that over 80% of 66 poets that were listed in the Norton Anthology of Poetry were first published ten years after starting reading and writing poetry. Both of these studies can also be seen as lending support to the idea that practice is beneficial.

Defining Practice

We are all familiar with the general meaning of practice, perhaps equating it to sustained effort or repetition, but what else is required to ensure that practice is maximally effective. In his brilliant book ‘Peak’, Anders Ericsson, the world’s leading expert on deliberate practice, explains that if practice is to be an effective means of developing expertise, it needs to ‘purposive’ or ideally ‘deliberate’. Let’s have a look at each one in turn.

Purposive Practice

  1. Well defined, specific goals

Teachers should choose goals that are suited to their student’s current level of expertise. If their pupils are struggling with transcription, then asking them produce extended pieces of writing will not be the best instructional choice. It will be more useful to build their transcriptional fluency, perhaps through systematic spelling instruction, dictation activities or short, timed writing practice.

A pupil’s level of writing expertise is unlikely to be the same across genres or different types of tasks. Expertise is often very narrow and highly domain specific. When pupils enter year 7, they are often pretty good at writing stories, having learned and practiced this text type a lot during primary school. Although they are adept at writing narratives, they are usually relative beginners or even complete novices at writing analytically. Because of this, it will probably not be a good idea to expect them to write essays that are of a comparable length to their creative pieces. Instead, instruction and practice should be focused at the sentence and paragraph level, building fluency with these components with the eventual aim of creating fluency in the wider, composite task of writing text response essays.

2. Putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer term goal

Although the goal may be fluent and proficient extended compositions, the best way to achieve this is likely to involve practicing the components that build up the composite whole. Designing restrictive practice activities that focus on isolated components can be really helpful.

3. Focus and Attention

If pupils aren’t concentrating or paying attention, then it doesn’t matter how good we think we our lesson is, they won’t get better at writing. Mike Hobbis explains some of the research into attention in this post

4. Feedback

In Peak, Ericsson points out that ‘meaningful positive feedback is crucial for motivation……..this can be internal feedback such as the satisfaction of seeing yourself improve at something, or external feedback provided by others’

To prevent errors from becoming ingrained, in the initial stages of instruction, corrective feedback should be immediate. Effective feedback requires the giver to have a well-developed mental representation of what is being performed. If a task is vague, then this can makes things difficult. Feedback involves comparing these expert mental representations to the performance: the difference is what the student needs to do to improve.

5. Getting out of your comfort zone

Purposive practice should involve a level of challenge that is just above pupils’ current performance levels. It should be achievable yet challenging and this is often a hard balance to achieve. Rosenshine’s principles of Instruction, based upon the product-process research, would point to 80% as being an optimum success rate for pupils: on average, pupils should be getting 80% of the answers correct in a lesson. Too easy and pupils may lose interest; too hard and pupils may give up. They need to see that if they devote sustained attention to the task, that the goal is achievable. Asking pupils to write answers to GCSE exam questions in year 7 is unlikely to strike this balance.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice requires that teachers ‘set practice activities designed to help pupils improve’. In order to create such activities, the teacher will need to follow a number of guidelines:

  1. Teachers must know what makes up expert writing

Deliberate practice is different from other forms of practice because it requires a fairly well established domain where ‘the best performers have attained a level of performance that clearly sets them apart from people who are just entering the field.’ Writing seems to fit this description. Although there will be huge variations in style, tone, register and form across expert writing, even within a specific genre or text type, expert writers will likely have utilized similar cognitive processes in order to create their pieces. Deftly juggling mental representations that span author, text and prospective readers, they will have recursively planned, composed and reviewed their writing. These processes can be isolated and practiced with students and these mental representations can be incrementally developed too, through extensive reading and studying models. Pupils should also be taught and asked to apply specific sentence structures or literary techniques.

How can this be achieved:

  • Practice, practice practice! Teachers should regularly be practicing writing themselves by completing the same tasks that pupils are asked to do. Almost every time pupils write, I write as well.
  • Reading, analyzing and discussing student work with colleagues

2. They must understand the relationship between components and wholes

Extended writing, like most other complex cognitive or physical skills, can be split up into different components, each of which can be taught and practiced in isolation before being combined into increasingly complex wholes. There are many advantages to this approach and it is no surprise that drills and restrictive practice tasks are standard in sports training and music teaching. Drills allow initial massed practice so that pupils, through immediate corrective feedback, are able to perform accurately. These drills can then be distributed over time so that pupils retain the skill and, once the desired level of accuracy has been reached, pupils can begin to work on their fluency by attempting to complete trials within a specific time limit. If pupils become fluent in these components, they are far more likely to be able to use them in wider writing.

Practising sentence structures on their own, however, is unlikely to be very successful. Pupils need to eventually use these components in their wider writing and an effective instructional sequence will gradually shift from restrictive practice to wider application. Something like this:

How can this be achieved:

  • Components should be chosen and sequenced based on their utility-anaphora may well be more useful to pupils than anastrophe.
  • Components should be chosen that are easily combined with others: specific high utility sentence structures are ideal here.
  • Particular attention should be paid to the shift from drills to wider application so that pupils are able to apply what they have practiced in extended writing. If not, pupils will not transfer their knowledge to wider writing. Transfer is notoriously difficult to achieve, although one method of achieving it is to make pupils  aware of the similarity between different contexts or tasks. This can be achieved through prompts, success criteria and asking pupils to underline the components that they have included in their writing.
  • Ensure that there is a suitable balance between practicing components and appropriate extended writing. Most of the time, classes should be doing both: drills to develop accuracy and fluency; extended writing to push pupils thinking about the content as well as to combine and apply fluent components. If pupils only complete drills, this will only help them get better at drills and they may not transfer this knowledge to extended writing. If pupils only do extended writing, this is unlikely to accelerate their progress as much as balancing the two.

If you are interested, many of the ideas in this post are based on ‘Training Advanced Writing Skills: The Case for Deliberate Practice‘ by Ronald T Kellogg and Alison T Whiteford.

Next Post: Reading and Writing: A Reciprocal Relationship

The Development of Writing Expertise: From Telling to Crafting.

Although there are lots of models for describing writing, many split it into three main cognitive processes: planning, writing (often called ‘translating’ in research) and reviewing. These processes should not be seen as sequential or separate and the act of writing will involve recursive interaction between all three:

But what does expertise mean in writing? How can we describe the development of expertise? One particularly influential model (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1987) splits the development of expertise in writing into three stages:

  1. Knowledge Telling
  2. Knowledge Transforming
  3. Knowledge Crafting

The diagram above attempts to describe how writers develop in expertise by focusing on the wider processes of writing (planning, translating and reviewing) as well as the mental representations that writer’s rely upon. Cognitive Load Theory and research into expertise would suggest that an important difference between experts and novices is the depth and breadth of their background knowledge. Experts have more accurate and comprehensive mental representations of whatever it is they are thinking about and are able to retrieve and apply these from their long term memories, thereby circumventing the seemingly unalterable limitations of working memory. If you look at the diagram above, you will see that this model of writing development is in agreement with these ideas.

Knowledge Telling

At this novice stage of writing, pupils are focused on retrieving what it is they want to say and then turning these ideas into a written form. Writing at this stage will be a simplistic restatement of a pupils’ thoughts. While they are unlikely to be focused on how an imagined reader may interact with what they have written, this is not to say that they are entirely solipsistic in their approach: even very young children recognise that other people think differently and have different perspectives.

At the ‘knowledge telling’ stage, it is assumed that the pupil is likely to have an impoverished mental representation of what the text they have written actually says as well as how a reader may interpret it.  Young children can sometimes struggle to understand what they have just written and this may be because when they are writing, they are almost entirely focused on the process of converting their thoughts into writing and not on how the text actually reads. At this stage, pupils’ transcription skills will be far from fluent: their handwriting may be laborious and their spelling may require sustained concentration and focus. Because pupils have to direct their attention to these component skills, they may be unable to concentrate fully on the meaning of what they have written.

A second assumption here is that it is impossible to focus on reader interpretation in the absence of fully comprehending what has been written. Additionally, because these mental representations are not stable or clear within a pupils’ mind, they are unable to use them when planning and reviewing and this explains the limited use of planning and reviewing by writers who are within this early stage.

Knowledge Transforming

This second stage involves a constant interaction between the writer and the text that they are writing, with the writer changing what they want to say as a result of the process of writing. As they read what they have already written, they will not only strengthen their mental representation of their writing, but they may also trigger additional planning or sentence generation. For example, if the writer was writing a paragraph about Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy, they may begin by writing about his introspective questioning; this may then help them to decide what would come next in their analysis.

At this stage, the act of writing has become a process of actively constituting knowledge. Whereas knowledge telling involves the simplistic translation of thought into text, proficient writing (and the ‘knowledge transforming’ stage could be seen as the beginnings of proficiency) often involves a process of discovery in that writers only discover exactly what it is they want to say during the actual process of writing.

Flower and Hayes (1980) describe the shift from’ knowledge telling’ to ‘knowledge transforming’ like this:

‘At one end of the spectrum, writers are merely trying to express a network of ideas already formed and available in memory; at the other, writers are consciously attempting to probe for analogues and contradictions, to form new concepts, and perhaps even to restructure their knowledge of the subject.’

Knowledge Crafting

This third stage represents true proficiency and expertise; writers who are operating at this level are constantly thinking about their readers and how what they have written will be interpreted. This will likely involve review and adjustment during the writing process, perhaps changing words or rephrasing sentences in order to maintain a specific tone or perspective. Writers operating at this level of expertise are more likely to make extensive structural adjustments and will be concerned with the form and shape of their argument. At this stage, writers are able to devote attention to what they have written, the ideas in their head that are yet to be translated into text as well as the needs or reactions of a potential reader.

Instructional Implications of this Model of Expertise

Knowledge Crafting requires a writer to do multiple things at once as they juggle different mental representations (text, author and reader) whilst simultaneously generating ideas, spelling accurately, forming letters properly and writing coherent sentences. Writers will also be recursively planning and reviewing as they write.

Writing is a composite skill made up of multiple interacting components. If pupils are to develop in expertise and therefore devote attention to the text, author and reader, they will need to reduce the load on their working memories. Beginners are likely to only focus on ‘telling’ because their dysfluent spelling and handwriting will take up a lot of their working memory capacity. Once their spelling and handwriting has become fluent and therefore automatized, they are more likely to be able to devote attention to the wider processes of planning and reviewing.

So what can we do to help pupils develop in expertise? How can we ensure that pupils move from telling to transforming to crafting?

  1. Reading and Writing: connecting the two.

One possible avenue for instruction is through harnessing the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing, both of which share a common knowledge base. Reading can improve writing and writing can improve reading.

2. Knowledge

Effective composition requires an extensive range of knowledge, including vocabulary, grammatical know-how, discourse structures and domain specific knowledge. If writers are to be successful, they need to be able to rapidly retrieve this knowledge when writing. If it is not accessible from long term memory, perhaps through lack of practice or because too much time has passed since they original learned it, then they will be unable to use it when writing.

3. Attentional Funneling

It can be helpful to explicitly teach pupils strategies for each of the three main cognitive processes of writing (planning, translating and reviewing). Initially, and in order to reduce unwanted cognitive load, each process should be taught in isolation. Strategy instruction, like almost everything else, will be made more efficient if it is taught through the I-We-YOU continuum, beginning with lots of modelling and moving gradually towards independent practice. While splitting up the writing process and teaching each part separately may be very different to how experts write, this is to be expected: effective instruction will often look different to the final performance.

4. Deliberate Practice

If pupils receive sufficient practice in the components and wider cognitive processes of writing, then each will require gradually less attention and effort. Like attention funneling, the goal of deliberate practice is to bring pupils to an acceptable level of writing fluency so that they can then successfully use and juggle multiple representations (text, author, reader) whilst writing.

Deliberate practice requires:

  1. Effortful exertion to improve performance
  2. Intrinsic Motivation to engage in the task
  3. Tasks that are within the reach of an individual’s current level of ability
  4. Effective feedback
  5. High levels of repetition

If you are interested, many of the ideas in this post are based on ‘Training writing skills: A cognitive development perspective‘ by Ronald T Kellogg

Next post: Writing Expertise: The Case For Deliberate Practice

What are Effective Approaches for Teaching Writing?

‘The Handbook of Writing Research’ is a good overview of some of the current areas of research:

So what approaches to teaching writing are effective? I have written previously about the importance of restrictive practice activities for teaching components, using model answers, helping students see the deep structure of writing tasks and strategies for ensuring that students write enough.

This post will explore a chapter from ‘The Handbook of Writing Research’. Entitled ‘A Review of Reviews’, the chapter synthesizes evidence from 19 previous evidence reviews covering pupils from KS1-KS4, many of which were meta-analyses, and includes both quantitative and qualitative studies. While there are undoubtedly limitations and potential issues with such large scale reviews (see this article for a brief overview as to the use of meta-analyses in education), this chapter gives a good overview of potentially effective approaches to the teaching of writing. What follows is a summary of the chapter’s recommendations.


  1. Increase the amount of time that students spend writing

Effective teachers ask students to write often for a variety of useful purposes. Although this may seem a little reductive, much of GCSE English writing, spanning both literature and language, can be grouped into three main genres: rhetoric, descriptive/creative and responding to texts. These are broad categories, each containing a range of typical tasks that require slightly different approaches, but there are more similarities than differences within each one. Teachers should ensure that students are given enough opportunities to practice each type. Perhaps unsurprisingly, increasing the amount of time students spend practicing writing will likely increase the quality of their writing. To be maximally effective, practice needs to be deliberate and appropriate to the level of expertise of the students: asking pupils to write essays in year 7 may not be the best approach, their lack of fluency in the various components that make up an essay may mean that they will struggle with such an extended task.  

2. Create a Supportive Writing Environment

Students benefit from spending time gathering information and building their knowledge base so that they can then apply this in their writing. Knowing more about a topic or genre of writing is likely to result in better final pieces. This is an ideal opportunity to combine reading and writing within lessons. Asking pupils to read texts on relevant topics or read texts that can pupils can emulate will be good preparation for their writing.

Students should also be given time to plan and organize their ideas. A lot of writing research splits the writing process into three stages: planning, writing and reviewing, and teachers should be teaching students how to approach each of these stages, demonstrating how to approach each stage as well as providing them with models and specific strategies for each one.

Teachers who are enthusiastic and emphasize the importance of effort about writing are more likely to be effective; they should set specific goals (how much? what style? which components? what content?) and have relentlessly high expectations of all students. Support should be given to those who need it: after setting a writing task, I often go and give individual help to specific students, providing further prompts, giving sentence frames or asking them questions about process or approach.

3. Teach Writing Skills, Strategies, Knowledge and Motivation

In the US, there is a substantial body of writing research centred around ‘Self-Regulated Strategy Development’, known as SRSD. Strategy Instruction is often focused upon the three main stages of the writing process and teaches students how to plan, write and review their work. This approach is particularly effective when students are taught self-regulation procedures. A subsequent blog post will explore SRSD in more detail but this paper provides a good overview.

SRSD tends to focus on the wider process of writing, but effective teachers also focus on foundational skills and the components that make up the wider performance. Student who struggle with transcription (handwriting and spelling) will need instruction in these if they are to succeed in developing their writing fluency. If handwriting or spelling is laborious and slow, this will preclude students from being able to concentrate on the wider processes of writing like generating ideas, composing sentences or planning as their attention will be unduly focused on this area of dysfluency.

Seen through the lens of limited working memory, we can only concentrate on so many things at once. Skilled, fluent writers are able to write at a rapid pace whilst directing attention to planning, the needs of the audience and subtle ideas like tone or voice because their transcription has reached a state of automaticity, most likely through extensive reading and writing practice. For a useful overview of the importance of fluent handwriting, this post by Alex Quigley is worth reading.

As well as focusing on foundational skills, effective writing instruction will also involve sentence based work. This could be through sentence combining or through modelling and practicing specific constructions. The aim of this teaching should be fluency and optimal instruction and practice will be distributed and sufficiently varied, support being gradually faded as pupils gain in expertise.

Cognitive Load Theory would suggest that novices learn best from worked examples and this research view corroborates that finding. An effective approach is to ask pupils to emulate model texts. If you are teaching creative writing, a well-chosen short story can provide a transferable narrative structure for pupils to hang their ideas upon.

Enhancing student motivation can also be effective and one of the most powerful ways of doing so is engineering regular opportunities for pupils to succeed. If pupils are not succeeding, then this should make you stop and think. Perhaps you are aiming instruction at a composite skill when you should be focusing on the dysfluent components that are preventing pupils from succeeding. Perhaps you have removed support too quickly and you have not spent enough time on a specific instructional stage within the I-We-You continuum.

4. Provide Feedback

Students make better progress if they receive useful feedback about their writing. This does not mean extensive written marking, an approach that is incredibly time consuming and doesn’t seem to result in the gains that it promises. Self-assessment can be effective, although it is perhaps most useful when it involves pupils checking for whether they have included specific things or followed a specific process. Similarly, peer assessment can be really useful, particularly when pupils are given guidance as to how to approach it. 

5. Use 21st Century Writing Tools

The chapter points to how typing can help pupils become better writers. As adults, I’m sure that most of the writing that we do is on a computer but most examinations are still handwritten. Even in KS4, lots of pupils still need to build their writing stamina, their English examinations being amongst the longest that they will sit at GCSE, and this is why regular writing using a pen is still really important.

6.Use Writing as a tool to Support Student Learning.

Reading and writing are inextricably linked, both drawing upon the same body of knowledge and skills. Timothy Shannahan summarises the relationship between the two modalities here. Asking pupils to write about what they have read can be seen as a generative activity. Students need to select relevant material, organize it within their working memory and connect it to prior knowledge within their long term memories. If pupils successfully engage in these three stages, this is more likely to result in understanding. For example, asking pupils to write summaries of what they have read can be really effective.

Caveats and Limitations

The writers acknowledge that this review cannot tell us exactly what combination of approaches is needed for effective writing instruction. While all of these strategies are deemed to be effective, the writers are careful to point out that teachers should make decisions as to the selection and application of the recommendations based upon their knowledge of their students. One way of making effective instructional choices is by focusing on pupils levels of accuracy and fluency. The writers also point out that these recommendations tell us nothing about how to develop a writer’s voice, the awareness of audience or how to teach EAL students.

Next post: The Development of Expertise in Writing: From Telling to Crafting

Short Stories 4

Here are some more short stories that I’ve enjoyed reading and teaching.

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

When a mysterious winged man appears in a family’s backyard, the local people are shocked and confused. Is he an angel? Is he human? A classic example of magical realism, the story satirises religion and asks us to consider the difference between beliefs and reality.

Who Will Great You At Home by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Another work of magical realism, this story explores ideas of motherhood and the social pressures that accompany it.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

A man is suspicious and jealous when an old friend of his wife comes to stay. Over the course of an evening, his prejudice is gradually replaced with empathy and his perspective changes.

Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit by Silvia Plath

This short story deals with ideas of loyalty and betrayal, focussing on how children often create scapegoats in order to avoid culpability. A young girl is blamed for pushing another girl and ruining her snowsuit. Plath explores how children blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

Then Later His Ghost by Sarah Hall

In a post acopalyptic world battered by 100mph winds and constant storms, a young boy ekes out a fragile existence. As he searches for a copy of The Tempest, he risks his life to help a woman.

The End of Something by Earnest Hemingway

Nick and Marjoe are on a fishing excursion. As they talk about their activity, it becomes clear that their relationship is crumbling.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

Fuwaad ibn Abbas discovers a magical gate in a shop in medieval Baghdad. The shop owner tells him tales of how others have travelled through the portal to meet their future selves. Fuwaad learns that the man has another gate in Cairo that allows people to return to their past and travels there in order to undo an error he made twenty years earlier.

Mr Loveday’s Little Outing by Evelyn Waugh

Angela goes to visit her father, Lord Moping, who is a patient at an asylum. This short story is filled with dark humour and has a great twist at the end.

The Invisible by Jo Lloyd

In a rural Welsh village, Martha tells the other villagers that she has befriended an invisible family who live a luxurious life of wealth. Lloyd explores how people create fantasies in order to make life tolerable and her story delves into themes of class and inequality.

The Statement of Randolph Carter by H.P. Lovecraft

Carter tries to explain the horrific disappearance of his companion, the occultist Harley Warren. Carter recounts the unsettling tale of how they travelled to an ancient graveyard in search of a portal to the underworld.

A Good Man in Hard to Find by Flannery O’Conner

A family travel to Florida for their summer holidays when they hear of a serial killer called The Misfit. With a shocking ending, this story explores what it means to be good.

Short Stories 3

Over the last few months, I’ve become a bit obsessed with reading short stories. Here are some more that I have enjoyed reading and teaching. I came across quite a few of the stories whilst reading Redefining English for the More Able by Ian Warwick and Ray Speakman, which is fantastic.

Dagon by H.P. Lovecraft

A terrified and traumatised man recounts a story of how he was captured by German soldiers in the Pacific. He tells of his escape, and how he awoke in a strange aquatic landscape where he found an unsettling monolith, covered in ancient, alien hieroglyphics. Tormented by his experience, he seems on the edge of madness.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin

In Omelas, the people are happy and live a utopian existence free from hardship and worry. The only problem is that this blissful state depends upon the suffering of a little child.

The Match by Alan Sillitoe

Two men, one old and one young, go to watch Notts County play Bristol City. Written in the 1950’s, The Match is a grim and bleak tale that explores fate and determinism.

Kew gardens by Virginia Woolf

As the sun beats down on Kew gardens, people walk and talk, providing us with snippets of their lives.

Blind by Mary Borden

A nurse works in a chaotic, First World War military hospital.

Spit Nolan by Bill Naughton

A group of boys build and race trolley karts in the streets. This story has a rich and distinctive narrative voice and a shocking ending.

Eveline by James Joyce

Eveline is a young woman who dreams of leaving her grim, poverty-stricken Dublin existence to follow her boyfriend to Buenos Aires.

The Ballroom of Romance by William Trevor

Every weekend, Bridie goes to the local dance in search of romance. This is a story about loneliness and reluctant compromises, filled with lost characters and outsiders.

Smear by Brian Evenson

An eerie tale of space horror, Smear describes the lonely journey of a single human as he travels through space. The story explores the blurred lines between humanity and artificial intelligence, maintaining an unsettling tone throughout.

Short Stories 2

Here are some other short stories that I enjoy teaching. Some have links to where to find them online; others have word documents with tasks on that you can download.

The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

A story about scientific hubris and the dangers of pursuing unattainable perfection, The Birthmark explores questions about beauty as well as the conflict between science and nature. It is a good text to pair with Jekyll and Hyde.

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe

Can we avoid death? Prince Prospero walls himself off from the Red Death that has devastated his country and lives a life of celebration and decadence. His castle contains a series of symbolically decorated rooms alluding to mortality. As the guests dance on, the clock slowly ticks.

Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

Orwell’s account of an event he witnessed when posted in Burma is an exploration of the absurdity of colonial power.

War by Jack London

An unnamed soldier rides through a hostile landscape, constantly on the look out for danger. War drips with tension and suspense as the young man strives to stay alive. This short story is great for practising commenting on structure.

An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

Set during the American Civil War, this short story has an interesting narrative structure as well as a good twist at the end.

The Necklace by Guy De Maupassant

This story explores the harmful effects of social climbing and the desire for acknowledgement.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

A man with a low IQ is given a powerful nootropic and it changes his life.

There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

In a post-apocalytpic future, a lone house remains.

Short Stories 1

Extracts from novels can be really useful, helping students to practice language analysis and all sorts of other important skills. However, using complete short stories is often far more interesting. There is something satisfying about reading a complete text. While short stories often dispense with traditional narrative structures, instead offering vignettes or extended thoughts on a specific theme or idea, the fact that they are fully realized pieces potentially allows us to do more with them: structural features are often more apparent; characters begin to take on three dimensions and the stories themselves can act as templates for students to emulate when writing creatively. (Thanks to Di Leedham for this suggestion!)

Here are some short stories that I enjoy teaching. Thanks to all the teachers on Twitter-many of these stories have come from their recommendations.

Eleven by Sandra Cisneros 

What does it mean to be a year older? Do you suddenly change into something different when another year has passed? This short story perfectly captures the embarrassment that children experience in school.

The Compass and Torch by Elizabeth Baines

A boy who lives with his mother and her partner is taken on an adventurous camping trip with his estranged father. The boy is keen to please and impress; the father stumbles in his attempts to forge a bond between them.

Charles by Shirley Jackson

One boy at kindergarten is causing quite the commotion: violent, rude and obstreperous, he is the subject of every story that Laurel tells his parents about school.

All Summer In A Day by Ray Bradbury

In this story, a group of children who live on Venus victimise a recent arrival from Earth who claims to have actually seen the sun.

Games at Twilight by Anita Desai

A group of children explode into the garden, finally allowed outside now that the heat of the day has subsided. A game of hide and seek ensures but how far will the main character go to beat his nemesis, Ravi?

The Darkness Out There by Penelope Lively

Two teenagers offer to help a sweet elderly lady with her housework. Beneath her kindness, however, lies a dark and shocking past.

The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin

A woman receives the tragic news that her husband has died. Her reaction is not as would be expected.

The Knowers by Helen Phillips

If you could find out when you would die, would you? Would knowing change how you live your life? This story investigates this very idea.

The Vendetta by Guy De Maupassant

When her son is murdered, an old woman plots her violent revenge.

Paper Menagerie by Ken lui

This is a poignant story about a Chinese American boy who begins to resent his mother as he struggles to find his identity.

Flowers by Alice Walker

A young girl stumbles upon something shocking whilst out collecting flowers.

The Gift of the Magi by O.Henry

An impoverished couple make huge sacrifices to buy each other Christmas presents.

The Murderer by Ray Bradbury

A psychiatrist visits a patient in a mental hospital who has been locked up for serially destroying electronic technology. This story raises interesting questions about who is really suffering from problems: is it the patient or is it society itself.

The Rain Horse by Ted Hughes

When a man returns to a place from his childhood, he feels anger and disappointment. A mysterious horse seems to attack him and the encounter leaves his shaken.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

An old man daydreams of a more exciting life as he trudges through his bland humiliating existence. In real life, his wife annoys him; in his dreams, he is a war hero .

Birdsong by Chimamande N’Gozi Adichie

Stuck in a Lagos traffic jam, a woman stares across at another driver who reminds her of her lover’s wife. A story of infidelity and life in Lagos, Birdsong is both captivating and amusing.

Sew my Mouth by Cherrie Kandie

Sew my Mouth is a harrowing story about forbidden love in Kenya.

What’s Expected of Us by Ted Chiang

This very short story, exploring the nature of free will, will leave your head reeling.