How can we get students to write more? Part 2

The first part of this blog can be found here

Procedural Knowledge and Scaffolding

Students often struggle with extended writing because they lose sight of the plan or fail to consider that an essay is more than a list of sentences. Explicitly telling students the plan (along with what each section requires) is crucial here. Assuming the plan has a transferable structure (and it probably should do if you are spending time teaching it!), then students can be asked to recreate it from memory across a number of lessons until they have retained it. Initial plans should be as detailed as possible so that students know exactly what is expected at each point. As students become more proficient, these details can be removed.

In the example below, the plan is simple as students understand what ‘detail’ means. The green bracketed sentence is further modelling of how to start a section as many of my students were writing repetitive paragraphs filled with He says.’………’, meaning, He also says ‘………’, meaning.

It can be useful to add in prompts or questions so that students know what to write. Again, if these questions are generalisable and applicable to a range of texts, then they are even more useful as, if given enough practice retrieving and applying them, students will realise that these are the kind of questions that experts may be asking themselves as they write in response to texts.

Here are some possible questions:

  1. Why do people do/say this?
  2. How does the writer feel and how do you know that?
  3. Can you Zoom in on a word?
  4. How does the reader feel?

Understanding the Text

Writing is a vehicle for ideas. Sometimes students struggle to write not because they don’t know how to write, but because they don’t know what to write. Unsurprisingly, if students lack the required knowledge, then we need to teach it. If students are to select the correct information, combine it in a coherent structure in working memory and integrate it with their prior knowledge (one way of conceiving of the process of learning), they will often need some support with each of these stages. The sweet spot of instruction is offering the minimal amount of support that results in success. Too much support can result in a lack of useful processing by the students as they realise that the teacher will do it for them- too little support and students will flounder. So how can we support students when they read difficult texts? Here are a few scaffolding strategies that might help:

  1. Briefly explaining what the text is about before you start reading

This is what the source summary does at the top of the AQA GCSE language papers. If students have an idea of what they are about to read, they are more likely to understand the details.

2. Annotating, notes and Checking for Understanding

Stopping to make notes, annotate or explain difficult vocabulary can help to unlock difficult texts for students. Focussing on and discussing the important parts (the bits they will need for the writing task) is essential if we want students to succeed when they write their response. Students should make the same annotations as the teacher: I normally tell them ‘You can add extra notes but your annotations need to look, at a minimum, like mine.’ Students often struggle to write because they lose focus when reading the source material. If they haven’t annotated or made sufficient notes, the text will remain incomprehensible, precluding them from writing about it.

Effective teachers will ensure that they ask students questions about the text and the extra annotations to check for understanding. Think-Pair-Share can be really useful here.

3. Selecting Evidence

After reading, discussing and annotating a text or extract, students can then find evidence that fits whatever task they are attempting. Assuming that your initial reading and discussion was thorough enough, then students will hopefully be successful here as if there is one thing that will prevent them from writing, it is the fact that they cannot find anything to write about. To prevent this from happening, the teacher can then ask students for what they found, underlining the text under the camera so that those students who struggled can then add the chosen evidence to their text.

Expectations and Motivation

All of the strategies above form a purposive or deliberate practice approach to writing. Splitting up a complex task into manageable and achievable practice activities, combined with a gradual increase in difficulty can be hugely motivating for students as they can experience regular and consistent success. The satisfaction of seeing themselves improve at something is a powerful motivational force: students change from thinking ‘I can’t write essays’ to ‘I am a successful writer.’

As well as the burgeoning intrinsic motivation that can develop from effective instruction, the teacher can also do a number of other things to ensure student work is of a good standard and that they continue to be motivated to work harder:

  1. Praising good work

Showing and deconstructing good student work under the visualiser can be really powerful in terms of motivation. Before showing it, the teacher can tell the students what they should be looking for-further reinforcing the success criteria and helping students see how these things look in final pieces. If there are lots of good bits in lots of student’s book, you can draw a star next to the good bit and then make a note. The student can then be asked to read out that section when you give feedback. Tactically varying the chosen work is worthwhile here: there will always be a few students whose work is the best, but choosing a range of students (as long as it is not disingenuous) can be really helpful.

Praising how the student has achieved something is also important-some students may not realise what focussed, hard work looks like; others can benefit from learning that some behaviours will have a negative effect on their performance.

Look at this…Rachel has written 1.5 pages and this is because she focussed for the entire time-I rarely saw her face as she was concentrating on her work throughout. She didn’t take a break after the introduction, nor did she spend anytime looking out of the window. She also began straight away. Look-here is her booklet, it is filled with useful annotations and this meant that it was really easy for her to write as she has worked hard to build her knowledge of the text.

2. Expectations

Set precise expectations as to what you expect. Do you want 1 page? 2 pages? If your instructional sequence has provided enough practice on the components, has had a gradual yet consistently achievable increase in difficulty and has asked students to slowly combine and apply the components then you can expect all students to meet your expectations. If students are able to write a page, then you need to insist on them doing so.

However, even if they have engaged in sufficient purposive practice, some students will still prefer to produce the bare minimum because they think that they can get away with it. This may be entirely rational: why work hard if you don’t have to? Attaching a consequence to your expectations can help here as there are always some students who are only motivated by the desire to avoid this. However, assuming that your teaching has allowed for consistent student success, a student’s motivation may well change from a desire to avoid a consequence to a desire to do the work. This doesn’t mean that the consequence should be removed, only that it will slowly be no longer needed as the primary motivating factor.

How can we get students to write more? Part 1

We have all taught classes where students struggle to write at length or develop their ideas in sufficient detail. But why is this? Why do students produce work that is closer to the bare minimum than the image of excellence in the teacher’s head? Why do students struggle to write at length, often giving up half way or significantly reducing their effort levels as they slip into a ‘that’ll do; that’s enough’ type attitude where mediocrity is seen as an acceptable outcome? Why do some students approach extended writing like a race as if finishing as fast as possible is the ultimate goal, as if writing is a laborious and unpleasant pursuit that is best completed quickly, as if stopping means the discomfort will finally end?

Like most of us, students would rather avoid doing things that are difficult or unpleasant: the child who stares out of the window or gets lost in their own thoughts instead of writing may well be doing exactly this. Like most of us, students would rather take a short term benefit (relaxing instead of working) instead of working hard in pursuit of a long term goal that may seem distant or even unachievable: the child who routinely completes the bare minimum may be thinking like this. Like most of us, students can produce work that they think is of a good standard when it is not, their mental model of quality being unsatisfactory and inadequate: the student who produces mediocre work yet believes it to be acceptable may well be behaving like this.

If you were training for a marathon (and extended writing can seem like one to some students), it would be tortuous and absurd to try to run 26 miles at the start of training. Instead, efficient training programmes will involve small increases in difficulty for each session-starting with really short runs-as well as isolating and practising the component parts of the final performance. Effective instructional sequences should do exactly the same thing: each session should have an incremental increase in challenge (whilst still ensuring that all students can be successful) as well as opportunities to practice, combine and apply the sub skills that make up the final performance. Adopting such a deliberate practice approach will probably be more efficient as well as being far more motivating for students as they are more likely to be consistently successful.

So how can we get them to write better and write more? The ideas below are focused on text response tasks where students have to write analytically using evidence.

Modelling and Practice

Writing involves synthesising a number of different skills and areas of knowledge, each of which needs to be accessible and automatized if students are to write fluently, freeing up their attention so that they can focus on sequencing ideas, paragraphing and the crafting of arguments. If students are not accurate and fluent in the components, then they will more than likely stumble when trying to assemble them into an extended piece.

Here are some strategies that may help:

  1. Lots and lots and lots of practice with embedding quotations

This is the gateway to writing in response to texts: without this ability, students cannot respond effectively.

Some initial, simple structures to practice are:

Agard writes ‘blind me to my own identity’, meaning…

Agard repeats ‘dem tell me’ because…

Boxer says ‘I will work harder’, conveying

Once they have mastered these, you can move onto more complex embedding structures. Modelling these orally, over and over again is a good approach, narrating the punctuation: When the Landlady says QUOTE MARKS HOW DARK QUOTE MARKS COMMA she demonstrates her ignorance and prejudice. In the early stages, writing the evidence at the top of a page (so that everyone is embedding the same quotations) allows practice to be more efficient because it is then easier to give corrective feedback.

2. Finding evidence

Like the live modelling of writing, students can also benefit from watching a teacher live model the process of finding evidence. Students often underline far too much, selecting multiple sentences when they really only need to explore a few words and modelling the concise selection of evidence can be really useful. This also allows further practice with embedding as the teacher can initially give oral examples of how to embed the evidence that they have chosen, then ask students to do it, applying the constructions that they have been taught.

3. Practicing components so they are accurate and fluent

Practising components, initially in restrictive drill type activities, can help students become accurate and fluent before they are asked to use them in extended writing. This will often take much longer than you think and students will need frequent, distributed practice in order to become fluent. The time spent here is worth it though: extended writing is made up of sentences and proficient writers deliberately choose, combine and adapt specific constructions so that the end result is well written and well-argued final pieces. If the writing contains incoherent sentences, then it will be a badly written piece. If the sentences contain poorly spelled words or unclear vocabulary, then they will not make sense either. Each level depends on the strength of the level below (essay-paragraph-sentence-word) and each level requires modelling and practice.

3. Lots of live modelling of paragraphs and specific sections of writing

Writing on the board or under the camera and explaining your choices as you do allows students to see what the process of writing looks like. It can help to have a prepared model next to you instead of making it up on the fly-this way you are less likely to make errors. Combined with effective questioning, live modelling can help students to understand how they should approach the task. For modelling to be truly effective, the model needs to exemplify transferable things that the students can then apply in later tasks. The more transferable something is, the more useful it is to students and the more important it is to teach. These may be analytical components, specific sentence constructions or whatever else makes up a quality response. These can be highlighted in the model and then used as success criteria for student writing so that they are clear as to what is expected. Using clear success criteria-things like you must zoom in on a word or you must include an analytical appositive sentence is far clearer than vague comments like you must develop your ideas. Clarity not only sets the standard but it also helps to hold those students who may prefer to avoid work to account.

Here’s an example of a model introduction. The Both/While sentences are the transferable constructions that I want students to use in their answers. Before I asked them to use them in extended writing, they had done lots of practice activities to build accuracy and fluency:

The purpose of this model is to demonstrate to students how they can combine and apply the two constructions in extended writing.

In the next post, I will explore:

  1. Procedural knowledge and scaffolding
  2. How to build knowledge and help students understand the text
  3. Expectations and motivation