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

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