‘Less is more.’
‘Quality over quantity.’
‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’
Such aphorisms may be common parlance, yet I wonder how much heed we take of them in our day-to-day teaching practice. Time, as we know, is precious; learning time is easily frittered away on meaningless trivialities. My question is this: are we using time effectively in our classrooms and, in particular, how well are we helping our students to manage the time they spend writing?
Students who struggle with writing seem to fall into two camps: they either write too little or they write too much. Either they cannot – or, at least, believe that they cannot – imagine the next step on the journey, or they fast-forward to the finishing post ignoring the steps a good writer must take to achieve genuine success. So, how do we encourage our students to write at a pace conducive to both quality and quantity?
Recently, I have been experimenting with slowing down. In my English department, we have found one of David Didau’s ‘slow writing’ strategies to be revolutionary – read his post here. In short, the teacher gives students a series of instructions about how to form each sentence within a paragraph (begin the first sentence with an adverb; begin the second sentence with a simile; write a third sentence of only five words etc.). It works so well because students have to stop and think between sentences. Each sentence becomes a ‘sub-goal’, a necessary stage in the procedure of writing.
Here are two examples from one of my students, a reasonably able year 9 boy. In the first creative writing task I had not given explicit sentence instructions; in the second I had. The difference in quality is clear to see:
Last weekend, when reading a chapter on how knowledge is stored in the mind in Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn, I was struck by the concept of ‘procedural knowledge’:
“Procedural knowledge implies a sequence of sub goals. A task is broken down into components where each component is a distinct step to be defined and mastered. This entails a series of if-then contingencies.”
To what extent, then, can the writing process be classified as a procedure of ‘if-then contingencies’? If a complex sentence has been used, then follow it with a short, simple sentence. If a verb has been used at the start of a sentence, then follow it with a sentence starting not with a verb, but perhaps an adverb… and so on.
Yet surely, you might reasonably claim, writing is about free-thinking and fluency, not about adherence to hard-and-fast rules?
Based on the evidence from my own classroom, I am not convinced that relying solely on a free-thinking approach helps the novice writer to learn or retain anything meaningful. I have often been guilty of setting tasks such as ‘write an essay on’ or ‘write a crime story’ with the knowledge that my students can barely form, let alone organise, their sentences.
Consider this analogy. If you were to give a learner driver, who had had some basic training in the use of the foot-pedals and steering-wheel, a set of car keys and ask him to drive from London to Newcastle, he might, with luck, arrive safely. On the journey, he might hone some coping strategies, and perhaps as a result might think himself a more competent driver. Yet many complex driving skills that take time and practice – say negotiating a roundabout or learning how to reverse park – would have been overlooked totally. That’s why we have driving lessons: to teach, slowly, the complex procedural knowledge of how to drive. And do you know what? Almost all of us eventually pass.
In the same way, we need to teach our students to write in careful stages, so that they avoid racing to the finishing line and learning little en-route. That is why at KS3, and when possible with KS4, I am breaking writing into smaller sub-goals and attempting to reinvent the notion of ‘finishing’.
Hattie and Yates’ also assert that “the simple truth is that procedural learning (a) is slow and (b) requires much feedback and extended practice.” ‘Slow writing’, therefore, should not become a selection of nifty strategies to be used once in a while; instead, if it is to have genuine and sustained impact, it should be extended into a fully-fledged teaching philosophy.
So, in a world and educational climate in thrall to the concept of ‘rapid progress’ and silly quick-fixes, how can we sell slow to our students? Here are a few strategies I am working on (in no particular order). These are about getting students to think more carefully at the point of writing, not about the redrafting process:
· Limit ‘end thinking’ and focus on ‘stage thinking’. We should create meaningful obstructions that force our students to stop and think about a sentence or paragraph before – and while – writing it. David Didau’s example discussed above works brilliantly. As students become more proficient they can design their own sentence descriptors. Another incredibly simple strategy is to enforce the rule that no sentence in a piece of writing should start with the same word.
· Provide more structure so that students focus on the how and not just the what. When writing creatively, students can be given a fixed storyline that they must follow in a set number of paragraphs. Alternatively, write the first and last paragraphs for them (or together). Both strategies help to alleviate the ‘cognitive load’ created by having to tell the story and craft fantastic sentences simultaneously. If students are planning themselves, make sure that each paragraph is planned thoroughly in terms of both content and technique before they begin (modelling the process in detail is also vital).
· Pause writing tasks regularly for critique. I find this to be particularly useful after the first paragraph is complete so that any bad habits are weeded out as early as possible. This only need take a few minutes. At the moment, I am photographing paragraphs with the CamScanner app on my iPhone, uploading them onto Dropbox on the PC and then critiquing them as a class. I tend to pick an above average piece that still needs some work – that way the critique is useful to all.
· Focus on handwriting and presentation. We must ensure that the act of writing is given an elevated position. A student’s attitude towards writing can often be inferred from their handwriting. A couple of tips. Get the student to rewrite it if you cannot read it (this worked brilliantly only last week for me). Let them know that their work may be chosen for the class critique and that the rest of the class will desperately want to be able to read their great ideas. Nevertheless, it is important that students recognise that the messiness of editing is to be applauded.
· Create maximum quantity limits rather than minimum expectations. I am sure that we have all looked at the exercise books of our colleagues’ classes and experienced a pang of failure when realising that students in other classes have written twice as much as ours. This teacher mindset, however, is damaging. Simply telling students that they need to write 3, not 5, paragraphs, will take away unnecessary pressure and give them the time to think about improvement. Effort only equals success when the effort is pin-pointed on deliberate improvement.
· Control the pace of writing – Tell your students that they must not move on to the next paragraph until 10 minutes (or another arbitrary figure) is up. Ensure your classes know a range of editing strategies so that those who ‘finish’ first can improve their work. It is important that a correlation between ‘coming first’ and ‘success’ is not encouraged in the classroom.
· Broaden the ‘slow writing’ approach to all writing. As an English teacher, I now teach ‘reading’ skills by focusing on the language – or ‘genre’ – of literary analysis. One of the most truly liberating things I have done of late is to kiss farewell to PEE. It is far too clunky and simplistic. Students do not write sentences like the one below if they are only taught PEE. (See my post on the ‘sentence escalator’ for more ideas.)
· Cut out unnecessary lesson and curriculum content. To allow the time for genuine deep learning, we need to pare-down our practice so that we can give reasonable time to the curriculum areas that make a difference. See Alex Quigley’s brilliant post on curriculum design and ‘threshold concepts’ – here – for fantastic thinking in this area.
· Repeat learning. A wealth of cognitive science research – as well as what we experience with our own eyes – makes it abundantly clear that students recall only a small percentage of what we hope they will learn. Joe Kirby’s brilliant post last weekend on creating a ‘mastery assessment’ system based on memory – available here – is a must-read. We must not be afraid to return to the same writing skills over and over again – not only to hone them, but just to get the students to remember them.
You may have read this post and wondered whether I am advocating ‘spoon-feeding’. I am not. Independent, imaginative and resilient young writers are what we all hope to create. The strategies above are designed to scaffold the very best writing from all. I have found them worthwhile when teaching the full range of abilities.
There is no such thing as perfection; everyone can improve if they are given time to write…