Teaching Writing: Questions for Heads of Department

In my last post, I listed a number of questions that subject leaders could use to evaluate how they approach reading in their subject. This post will list questions that could be used to evaluate how writing is taught and approached.

  1. Do students write in order to develop and refine their ideas and opinions?

Doug Lemov calls this ‘Formative Writing’ and it is akin to Flannery O’Conner’s assertion that ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say’. (She may obviously have never said this but the internet seems to think that she did!). Writing can be a means of clarifying, honing and developing our opinions and ‘formative writing’ refers to precisely this.

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are usually asked their opinion without having been given time to think, write and therefore formulate their view.
  • Teacher expects students to answer complex questions quickly and verbally

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Everybody Writes: students are asked to write individually in silence before discussing in pairs/whole class discussion
  • Teacher circulates while students write to select good ideas to share/choose answer to show under camera and deconstruct/correct errors/challenge misconceptions

2. Do students write to practice applying a process (explain/justify/analyse)

Typically, the process or style here is dictated by examination requirements.

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are not given sufficient practice on subject specific skills
  • Students are not taught how to plan, review or edit their writing
  • KS4/KS5: students are not taught exam technique/procedural knowledge needed for examinations
  • Teachers don’t write models live in class

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • KS4/KS5: Students are taught precise, step-by-step processes to answer examination questions
  • KS4/KS5: Students regularly practice timed examination questions
  • KS3: students practice writing that builds useful knowledge and skills
  • Students are shown similarities across exam questions or writing processes to aid near transfer
  • Extended writing is broken down into components, each of which is taught, practised and then combined with others: introductions? Conclusions? Paragraph transitions? Use of evidence?
  • Students are explicitly taught and practice planning, reviewing and editing extended writing
  • Teachers model knowledge organisation using concept maps and other visual methods
  • Teachers regularly model good writing in class

3. Do students write to expand their syntactic control and practice specific sentence forms?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are not taught or asked to practice specific sentence forms or components
  • Taught sentence forms are not high-utility (they only have a very niche or narrow usage)
  • Taught sentence forms cannot be manipulated or generalised (students are asked to mimic a specific sentence form without learning how it works)
  • Students are not given enough examples to study at the beginning of instruction
  • Students are not given sufficient practice with new forms so they never become automatic and fluent
  • Instruction does not gradually move from restrictive to wider application, causing ‘splinter skills’ where students fail to apply the component to wider writing

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Students use because/but/so to develop ideas and practice vocabulary
  • Students are taught subject specific, high-utility sentence forms/writing components: despite?/appositives?/While?/Firstly…Secondly?/passive voice?/nominalisation?/colons?
  • Sentence Combining is used to teach new sentence forms
  • Sentence forms are taught though examples: students are given a maximal range of relevant examples to develop their mental model of what is being taught
  • Students are given non-examples to help refine their understanding of usage
  • Writing practice exercises are focussed on subject content
  • Practice is distributed across sufficient lessons to ensure retention, fluency and generalisation
  • Initial practice is through restrictive drills with instant corrective feedback (instructional goal here is accuracy and fluency) before widening application to paragraphs and extended writing (instructional goal here is fluency and generalisation)
  • Success Criteria/Checklists/Prompts are used to bridge the gap between drills and application to extended writing

4. Do you combine reading and writing instruction?

Possible Evidence of Poor Practice:

  • Students are asked to write about things they know little about
  • Writing processes are taught as if they are generic, transferable skills
  • There is minimal link between reading and writing materials or instruction in your subject

Possible Evidence of Good Practice:

  • Students build knowledge (ideally through reading) before being asked to complete extended writing
  • Students regularly read, discuss and deconstruct examples of disciplinary specific writing
  • Students spend sufficient time practicing retrieving and applying knowledge so that they are able to recall it when they need to write in final performances

All of the questions can be found here in a word document:

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