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.

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

Experts and Novices: is that all there is?

When teaching something new, what should be the goal of instruction? What kind of measures can be used to indicate proficiency or expertise? While a student’s prior knowledge is important when choosing an instructional approach (worked examples for novices and problems for experts), is there anything else that teachers can use to help them make judgments about student proficiency, choose the optimal instructional approach or decide upon the next steps in learning? Is background knowledge the only measure of expertise? The Novice-Expert continuum is often described as if it is a dichotomy-is there any way of adding further nuance to what can often seem like a simplistic polarization?

One possible approach is the ‘Instructional Hierarchy’ (Haring et al 1978). This framework splits learning into five distinct stages (although some adaptations reduce this to 4), each with distinct goals, broad descriptors of competence and suggested instructional approaches.

The five stages:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Fluency
  3. Retention
  4. Generalisation
  5. Adaptation

Describing the incremental development of expertise, the stages also focus on a number of the important aspects of learning, including transfer, the change from inflexible to flexible knowledge and memory. Some object to ‘a change in long term memory’ being used as the definition of learning because it only seems concerned with retention and focusing solely upon memory can seem like a reductive and narrow conception of learning. However, the objection is often not about the importance of retention, but is instead concerned with the absence of anything else in the definition. Learning is a complex and multifaceted process and the Instructional Hierarchy could help teachers think about more than mere retention.

As well as potentially fleshing out the bit in between novice and expert, the stages of learning can help teachers make more precise decisions regarding instructional choices. Teaching is clearly not as simple as choosing between worked examples and problems, and learners are often somewhere in between the absolute descriptors of novice and expert.

Each of the stages may span many lessons and students will be at different stages with different skills. While the end goal of most instruction will always be creative, generalized performance where students deftly choose, adapt and refine what they have learnt in a way that fits whatever context they are presented with, the most efficient way of achieving this will involve multi-lesson instructional sequences that move students through the preceding stages. It is probably impossible to be a fluent performer in a particular discipline if you are inaccurate. Similarly, if you haven’t even acquired whatever it is you are learning-perhaps because you failed to select the correct information, then accuracy cannot be developed either. While experts have better organized and more developed knowledge at their disposal, it is how they are able to apply that knowledge that also sets them apart from novices. If learning is merely about retention, then this can sometimes be forgotten.

Stage 1: Acquisition

This stage of learning refers to students who are learning a skill for the first time. The objective at this stage is for students to learn how to complete the skill accurately and repeatedly. Following Engelmann’s guidance, initial teaching should span at least two lessons-although it may span more-and will probably involve some initial massed practice of the skill to reinforce the salient points.

Acquisition should always begin with modelling where students are shown exactly what they are expected to do before attempting the skill themselves. Students can then use these models as exemplars to consult when attempting to produce their own versions. Teachers should make their thought process explicit when writing live models, discussing their choices and the reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Initial practice activities must allow the teacher to give instant corrective feedback so that errors do not become ingrained and restrictive activities are an efficient way of doing this.

The goal of this stage of learning is for students to be able to accurately perform the skill without any form of support. While tasks will begin with lots of scaffolding, support and prompts, these should be faded out as quickly as possible.

Stage 2: Fluency

Fluency is an important part of expertise in any domain. Expert performance is rapid, smooth and accurate, and seems almost effortless and automatic to an observer. Once students have demonstrated the ability to perform accurately, the next focus for instruction will probably be fluency. Fluency, defined here as accuracy+speed, can be built by engaging in regular, short, practice activities that include a specific focus on speed by setting time limits or counting the number of successful completed trials within a specific time limit. Feedback should be focused on speed and accuracy and students should be praised for increased fluency. Like in the preceding stage, corrective feedback should be instant in order to make sure that students don’t ingrain errors.

Asking students to write 5 specific sentence constructions can be a useful fluency starter.

At this stage, students can be also be asked to combine skills together in practice activities.

EXAMPLE 1:  Ask students to combine embedded evidence with appositive phrases like this: The writer describes where the giraffes live as ‘nine small puddles’, a metaphor that hints at their vulnerability and the fact that their habitats are slowly being destroyed.

EXAMPLE 2: Ask students to combine present participles, multiple interpretations and tentative language like this: Upon hearing the witches’ prophecies, Macbeth says ‘cannot be ill, cannot be good’ as if he is not only intrigued and fascinated by their predictions, but is also slightly horrified by the possible ramifications of usurping King Duncan.

With these combinatory practice activities, it is important for students to have demonstrated accurate performance in each of the separate components before they are asked to combine them.

Stage 3: Retention

To ensure that students retain the skill, practice should be distributed over weeks, months and even years. Like with fluency practice, periodic review does not need to make up an entire lesson: distributed practice activities make ideal starters to lessons.

Stage 4 Generalisation

An important aim for instruction is for students to gain a generalized understanding of what is being taught and this is a core aim of Direct Instruction programmes. The first step in the development of DI programmes is a rigorous analysis of content to identify things that are generalizable as if these things were taught, they would provide the greatest benefit to students due to their wide applicability. In English, sentence constructions and analytical components are two examples of generalizable concepts and strategies. The ability to generalize is quite similar to the idea of transfer and transfer is the goal of this stage: if you have a generalized understanding of how to use noun appositives, you will be able use them in descriptive, rhetorical and analytical writing.

Distributed and varied practice across the widest possible range of relevant contexts can go some way towards helping students achieve near transfer. Initially, prompts or success criteria can help remind students to apply what they have learned to new contexts. Students can also be asked to underline the required skill within a new context, helping to remind them to use it; for example, if you are teaching not only….but as a means of writing multiple interpretations, and you want students to use this sentence construction in a rhetorical piece in order to build arguments-thereby widening its usage and asking students to generalize-then this step can help prompt them. As a final reminder, you can ask student to check for a specific thing after they have finished. Instead of check your work, ask them have you included 2 not only…but. Like with any form of scaffolding, these reminders should be removed as fast as possible so that students are expected to work independently.

Stage 5 Adaptation

The adaptation stage builds upon the generalisation stage: at this point students can typically apply the skill in novel situations without prompting from the teacher. Being the final stage in the hierarchy, this stage doesn’t end and will typically see students making small modifications and adaptations to the skill, widening its applicability even further and seeking out new creative ways of using it. This stage represents independence and true proficiency- students will be accurate, fluent and able to use the skill with flair and originality.

Is Explicit Instruction the Right Approach?

Let’s start by defining ‘explicit instruction’ as highly structured, interactive teaching where students are explicitly taught everything that they need before being asked to apply it in gradually wider and freer contexts. It can also be understood as the I-We-You model where responsibility is gradually shifted from teacher to student. In even simpler terms: tell them stuff, ask them questions about it and ask them to apply it.

To some, this approach can seem ill-suited to the more complex, higher-order aspects of learning (in English, these are the things like creative writing, essay writing and textual analysis) and it may seem that explicit instruction is more suited to the teaching of basic, fundamental concepts and skills like sentence constructions or vocabulary. There is a certain allure to this mode of thinking: the restrictive nature of explicit instruction seems to clang against the desired features of freer and open-ended tasks. We want students to write with flair, to make perceptive and nuanced arguments and to craft beautiful, creative pieces of work that shimmer with originality and imaginative ideas. Will excessive structure stifle this process? Is explicit instruction the wrong approach here? Should we instead adopt a less structured approach that is more aligned with discovery and inquiry?

I would argue that we are making a form of category error here. The nature of the task or content should not be the determining factor as to which broad instructional approach to use; instead, we should choose our instructional approach based upon the level of expertise of the student.

Let’s look at some evidence in support of the idea that explicit instruction is entirely suitable for complex, higher-order tasks:

Process-Product Research

In the 1970s, researchers set out to ascertain what it was that made teachers effective. They visited classrooms in an attempt to draw correlations between the teacher’s actions and the resulting academic outcomes. The findings were collated by Brophy and Good in this paper and the now ubiquitous Principles of Instruction is perhaps the most famous summary of this research. The ‘Principles of Instruction’ are seen by many as a list of common, explicit teaching strategies. When summing up their findings towards the end of the paper, Brophy and Good explain:

‘At least two common themes cut across the findings, despite the need for limitations and qualifications. One is that academic learning is influenced by the amount of time that students spend engaged in appropriate academic tasks.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we should consistently deliver efficient lessons where students spend maximal time thinking about content. Open ended group work can make this difficult to achieve as the potential for-off task behaviour is greater than classic whole class teaching.

The second is that students learn more efficiently when their teachers first structure new information for them and then help them relate it to what they already know, then monitor performance and provide corrective feedback during recitation, drill, practice or application activities.

This statement seems to implicitly describe how to ensure students engage in Fiorelli and Mayer’s three stages of cognitive processing from Learning as a Generative Activity:

  1. Select information to attend to.
  2. Organise the material into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrating it with relevant prior knowledge activated from long term memory

In the absence of explicit instruction, a possible concern is that students will fail to ‘select’ the correct information, effectively precluding them from engaging in the second two elements of cognitive processing.

Brophy and Good then continue:

‘For a time, these generalisations seemed confined to the early grades or to basic rather than more advanced skills. However, it now appears that they apply to any body of knowledge or set of skills that has sufficiently well organized and analysed so that it can be presented (explained, modelled) systematically and then practiced or applied during activities that call for student performance that can be evaluated for quality and (when incorrect or imperfect) given corrective feedback.’

So can explicit instruction be used to teach creative writing or analytical essays? If the statement above is to be believed, then yes it can. Extended writing can be explained, modelled and practiced; it can also be evaluated and feedback can be given. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a skill-whether complex or not-that falls outside of this description. Is this because the description is so wide and vague that it is meaningless? Perhaps it is because ‘explicit instruction’ includes so many broad principles, many of which would also be claimed by pedagogical approaches that see themselves in opposition to this school of thought. Perhaps when we say ‘explicit instruction’, it is understood by some in the pejorative sense of being a robotic and excessively didactic approach, instead of an approach that contains many elements of ‘common sense teaching’ and things that most good teachers probably do, whether they proudly label their practice with a specific pedagogical flavour or swear no allegiance to a particular school of thought? All of these questions are worth asking: concepts in education can be nebulous and professionals often seem to be talking past each other, lost in a fog of indeterminate signifiers.

Despite the conceptual wooliness and obvious overlap between supposedly separate pedagogical approaches, the issue remains that the complexity of the task should not be the defining consideration when choosing an instructional approach. If instead, we accept that an instructional approach should be chosen based upon the level of expertise of the learner, then explicit instruction is suitable for teaching complex tasks like extended writing.

Research into Cognitive Strategies

Successful extended writing is difficult to define and proficiency will take many guises. An essay will be made up of many different sub-components that, when coherently combined, will result in the perceived proficiency of the final piece. Added to this, judgements of quality will be inherently subjective; after all, the aesthetic and personal nature of writing is what makes it interesting and enjoyable. So does this mean that we cannot explicitly teach extended writing? If there are myriad ways of writing a good essay, then how are we to help students get better at this important skill?

One solution is through ‘cognitive strategies’

In The Use of Scaffolds for Teaching Higher-Level Cognitive Strategies’, cognitive strategies are defined as being  ‘more like supports or suggestions than actual step-by-step directives.’

Here’s a summary of how to teach these:

These suggestions share many of the conceptions mentioned by Brophy and Good (modelling, practice etc), and this is unsurprising given the fact that cognitive strategies research is one of the three sources of research that underpin Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. You will notice that independent practice is the final stage here, preceded by a gradual shift from teacher to student, and through a clear process of backwards fading, from models to completion problems to the removal of all support when they finally do it for themselves. Again, this is I-We-You.

In the final section of ‘‘The Use of Scaffolds for Teaching Higher-Level Cognitive Strategies’, Rosenshine and Meister explain:

‘Such concepts as modelling, thinking aloud, using cue cards, anticipating errors, and providing expert models, can also be applied to the teaching of well-structured skills’

So cognitive strategies can be used for both basic and more complex skills, lending further support to the idea that the type of content should not be the determining factor in choosing between direct instruction or inquiry methods.

They then continue:

‘This suggests that instead of a dichotomy, there is a continuum from well-structured, explicit skills to cognitive strategies. At all points in the continuum, some instructional practices, such as presenting information in small steps and providing guided practice, are important. Yet, as one moves from well-structured skills to cognitive strategies, the value of providing students with scaffolds-models, concrete prompts, think-alouds, simplified problems, suggestions and hints-increases.

 ‘The tools that we refer to as scaffolds are at a middle level of specificity. That is they provide support for the student, but they do not specify each and every step to be taken. There is something appealing about this middle level. It lies somewhere beteween the specificity of behavioural objectives that seemed overly demanding to some, and the lack of instruction that many criticized in discovery learning settings. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new synthesis.

And this is where we return to the problem of fuzzy concepts and talking past each other. For those who see direct/explicit instruction as being ‘behavioural objectives that seemed overly demanding’, scaffolding will probably still feature in their practice; equally, for those who see ‘the lack of instruction’ in ‘discovery learning’ as a problem, scaffolding will also almost certainly be a strategy that they use.

Cognitive Load Theory

According to Clark et al, ‘prior knowledge is the one individual difference that has been consistently shown to interact with different instructional methods’. The ‘Worked Example Effect’ and the ‘Expertise Reversal Effect’ would point to the fact that, irrespective of whether the content is simple or ill-structured, novice learners would benefit more from studying worked examples whereas experts would be better attempting to apply their knowledge by solving problems. Sweller et al maintain that ‘we should provide learners with as much relevant information as we are able’  and that ‘assisting learners to obtain needed information during problem solving should be beneficial’ as well as positing that ‘Providing them with that information directly and explicitly should be even more beneficial.’, statements that seem like explicit teaching to me!

So where does this leave us?

Instructional choices should be made based upon the expertise of the student, expertise here referring to their level of prior knowledge:

There is an important addition though. Prior knowledge here should not, however, be read as something akin to ‘general proficiency’. Let me explain what I mean. Even if a student is a phenomenal writer who can skillfully apply a wide range of sentence constructions, analytical components and different essay structures, if you want to teach them something new, the most efficient way of doing this will probably be through explicit instruction. While they may be proficient at lots of useful stuff, if they know nothing about Absolute Phrases, asking them to work them out for themselves or succeed with minimal guidance is probably not the right approach.

When you teach something new to someone, you should begin with explicit instruction. The complexity or structure of the task is probably irrelevant, the important variable being the level of expertise of the student in that specific thing.

In this sense, teaching reminds me of a fractal. If you zoom into an essay, whatever component you zoom into should have been initially taught via explicit instruction before support was gradually removed and students were asked to practice it independently. The structure of an efficient instructional sequence will look almost identical for teaching essay construction, paragraph composition, sentence creation or vocabulary acquisition: I-We-Yous all the way down.