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.

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