The following is a write-up of the CPD session on extended writing 20/9/16:
In many subjects across the curriculum, students are required to write at length. While the writing itself may not be assessed (although SPAG is marked in English Literature, Geography, History and Religious Studies), without effective writing, students cannot communicate effectively what they know in the subject. It can be a significant barrier for some of our students. Some controlled assessments require essays of 1000+ words and even shorter 6 or 12 mark questions in subject are demanding due to time pressures of exams.
By far the most important thing when thinking about extended writing is knowledge. There is no chance of writing of any quality when material is not known. American educator E.D. Hirsch, states the following:
‘Higher-order thinking is knowledge-based: The almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about any subject or problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of background knowledge relevant to the subject.’
So, make sure that students have the knowledge required. For subjects where the writing is merely the means of communicating what they know, students have to know things. Otherwise writing may happen, but it won’t be particularly good.
That said, there are certain practices that can enhance the quality of writing. Here, we will focus on three. Like most effective strategies they are simple: model, practise and support.
This includes two distinct elements:
Models: Students need to see examples of great extended writing.
Modelling: Students need to see an expert (you) creating writing and articulate thinking about the process.
Without models, students have no idea what quality looks like. Without modelling, they have no idea how to get there.
Models can take various forms. Teachers can create them; students can create them- or their work can be used; exam boards will have them in standardisation materials; you may even find real world examples which you can use.
We have had much success at DKA with ‘Artful Sentences’. Sentences are the simplest models and students with a command of effective sentence-building tend to produce the best writing. You can read the blog post on these here, and borrow a copy of Teach Like a Champion 2.0 if you’d like to read more.
You also need to model the processes involved in writing. This will often be heavily entwined with answering exam questions. Metacognition is something which has been shown to have real benefits, with the Sutton Trust stating in their research reports that “The evidence indicates that teaching these strategies can be particularly effective for low achieving and older pupils.”
Live modelling is incredibly effective. You can use a board and pen, but we have visualisers and department iPads to support this. Recently, the idea of the ‘Walking Talking Mock’ has been developed. (Read a blog on this here.) It can take a variety of forms but in essence is a teacher talking through what they are thinking as they answer exam questions. Modelling explicitly how to answer exam questions (whether they require writing at length or not) is one of the most effective things that we can do. The Geography department use the mnemonic BUGS!
The curriculum feels ever squeezed, and there is so much to cram in that sometimes we don’t practice writing enough. Writing at length is not something that students, or indeed adults, do regularly, so they need to practise. This means practising with exam timings to avoid complacency and increase urgency, practising planning and it also means the teacher stepping away and letting them do it without interruption.
There’s a difficult balance to be had with the support of extended writing. Too little support and students will find it difficult to even get started, let alone finished; too much support and answers become a little too formulaic and the most able students don’t write with enough flair. There is some merit in mnemonics as starting points, and one which has been successful in R.E. and Science is the PEEL structure. The examples shown are for R.E. and this structure allows students to score highly on questions that account for about 50% of the marks available.
In English, we have explored Iceberg paragraphs, which are built around a topic sentence.
While these two methods are distinct, they do have some overlap. Both require a clear point to be introduced, then evidence to support it, this evidence to be explored, and the question to be answered. For students who might struggle to build an Iceberg paragraph, saying something like “start with a point, just like you do when you use PEEL” has been useful.
Individual subjects must never be forced to use a mnemonic or approach that does not work for them, but over the next cycle we would like to explore further what works well with extended writing, to share what has been successful and see where we can find common ground. For example, are there sentence structures that we can use across the school which will support all of our subjects? Is there an extended writing slide that we could develop that would support all subjects in extended writing?
If you have any successful approaches, please let us know, and present them in the Teachmeet on 28/11.
More on Walking Talking Mocks:http://www.kristianstill.co.uk/wordpress/2015/05/02/walking-talking-mocks-worthwhile/
Shared writing- modelling mastery: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/shared-writing-modelling-mastery/
5 things every new secondary teacher needs to know about writing: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/writing/5-things-every-new-secondary-teacher-know-writing/