Slamming the door on bad writing habits

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Image: @jasonramasami

“DON’T SLAM THE DOOR!”

Over the last few weeks, I have been the recipient of this wearily repeated phrase plenty of times. You see, I am an inveterate door-slammer. As a conscientious child I would close doors softly and carefully, yet since we moved into our house, nearly six years ago, I have fallen into a new and clattering routine. In recent months, some suspicious-looking cracks have started to snake their way up our living room walls, and my partner has decided that enough is enough and it is time that I kicked the habit.

The trouble is, though, that I can’t. When I am reminded of the new rule, I happily comply, and for a moment or two kid myself that I am genuinely getting better. Unfortunately, everything falls apart the next time I absent-mindedly saunter over the threshold with something else on my mind. The tremor of seismic proportions that follows me leaves me wincing with guilt when I realise what I have done.

My door-slamming shame serves as a useful metaphor for what I notice about student writing. Bad student writing habits are so difficult to shift because they, like my door slamming, happen at an unthinking, automatic level. In Practice Perfect, Lemov et al write about how ‘practice becomes permanent’. If we do something over and over again it is hard to shift, and if that something is undesirable, it can have quite serious long-term ramifications.

At a parents’ evening last week, I found myself saying the same thing over and over:

“I know that [insert name] knows how to use a [insert grammar/punctuation rule] because when I ask or remind  [insert name] to do it he/she does it immediately. However, when [insert name] is writing an extended piece everything goes out the window and he/she seems to forget how to use a [insert grammar/punctuation rule].”

In fact, I have been repeating this statement at parents’ evenings for nine years now and it has rarely made a difference. I am also ashamed to admit that there are a few students I have taught for their whole time at the school who still repeat the mistakes they were making four years ago. Their habits are just as entrenched as my door-slamming. Even through I have taught them how to use, say, a possessive apotrophe, and even though they can explain to me how use one, they forget when they are writing. There is a sizeable gap between knowledge and regular application.

I am trying to work out some simple, sensible ways that we, as teachers of writing, can find a solution. What follows are some of the ideas I am beginning to pursue.

Literacy targets

Students need one or two long-term targets that feed-forward from task to task. Even though DIRT, editing, proofreading and redrafting are clearly useful, I am becoming less convinced that they are the sole answer. Do they really address the problems at their source? Let us return to my little front-door peccadillo. After feedback from my significant other, I could go outside, come back in again and shut the door more carefully, but would that lead me to remember it for next time? I’m not convinced.

In Embedded Formative Assessment (2011) Dylan Wiliam writes that feedback ‘must provide a recipe for future action’. However valid this point, this ‘recipe for future action’ is only useful if the student remembers to follow it!

The thing is, they have to be thinking about these targets as they are putting pen to paper; after is too late. The best hope we have, then, must be to make these targets very visible – in their books, on wall displays and slides, with regular reminders from us, too. Moreover, I think that the current obsession with ‘progress’ has dropped many of us into a further quagmire. I know, for instance, that I am regularly guilty of setting a child new targets before they have  successfully fulfilled their previous one. If a student has still not managed to master, say, using a full-stop accurately – even after a year of trying – then the target should not be changed, even if it makes me look like a ‘bad teacher’. If the target changes before the child achieves mastery then the implicit message might become: I don’t think you will ever be able to do it so I am changing the target.

Indeed, even if the child has been successful a few times, it would be wise for me to keep the target in place until I am completely convinced that the habit has changed. In other words, if I have any hope of defeating my demons at all a sign reading ‘DO NOT SLAM THE DOOR’  needs to be affixed to either side of my front door for the foreseeable future. It certainly should not be removed as soon as I get it right for the first time; I would inevitably fall back into the habit.


Shorter, focussed writing tasks

I alluded to much of this – here – on the importance of giving children time to write. I think that the principle of ‘challenge’ can be misapplied to writing. We often ask students to write extended pieces before they are really ready, in the belief that we are challenging them more rigourously. Sadly, for many, these longer pieces are counterproductive. Effort and thinking are expended on getting the pieces finished, rather than writing them at high quality. Ideally, we want students to be thinking about the what and the how as they are writing – i.e. the content they are writing about and the best way to express this in academic language.

The key, then, is to spend more time  on practising grammatical structures and well-developed paragraphs as they move incrementally towards longer pieces. Professional footballers rarely train by playing full-scale competitive matches – instead, they practise and fine-tune the parts of the game that eventually make up the whole. Students need time to think about their weaknesses in isolation, away from the extraneous stress created by having to complete longer tasks before they are ready.

As much as children tend to enjoy writing detailed stories, these can provide vehicles for bad practice. I am not against creative writing, not at all, but I have often found that if these tasks are not tightly structured, children become worse, not better, writers. It is no wonder, then, that scaffolding strategies, like David Didau’s slow writing have caught on so much. They force students into thinking carefully as they are writing.


Consider how much students are writing

What we need is not more writing per se, but more high-quality writing. Don’t forget, children are writing all the time – in lessons and for homework. For some, this is the deliberate practice they need to hone and sharpen their skill. For others, this provides the bad practice that leads to permanent, intractable literacy issues.

We are in a quandary. We cannot stop students from writing because, naturally, they can only get better through doing it; yet, for others, it is unrestricted writing itself that causes the bad habits to become entrenched. We simply do not have the time or resources to provide instant feedback to every child every time they make a mistake and, as I have suggested before, editing and proofreading, although useful, will not solve the problem at its origin. There is no perfect solution, but this is surely where robust whole-school literacy policies must play their hand. English teachers will never be successful in unpicking bad writing habits if they are overlooked in other subject areas. This is particularly true for our weaker writers.

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I think the answer to these problems might one day lie in technology. Unfortunately, current word-processing programmes like Word do all the thinking and correcting for the students; in my opinion they compound, rather than solve, the problem. However, imagine if, after diagnosing a child’s bespoke literacy needs , we could hook them up to a programme that prompted them with immediate feedback every time they performed particular errors. I am sure that this idea has plenty of exciting permutations, especially if the software producers were informed by the evidence from cognitive science.

Perhaps, then, we could finally slam the door on all those needless bad habits.

SLAM!

Damn, not again!

10 strategies for ‘talk-better’ teaching

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Image: @jasonramasami

Teacher talk gets a bad press. In recent years there has been a powerful movement promoting ‘talk-less’ teaching. Even though there is a modicum of truth in the observation that some teacher talk is poorly planned and unfocused with a tendency to overrun, a carefully crafted explanation is simply the clearest and quickest way to convey new ideas. During my career, talk-based pedagogic principles like ‘explanation’ and ‘modelling’ have played second fiddle to other generic strategies such as ‘questioning’ and ‘feedback’ as the focus for CPD. Of course, how we explain is mostly bound up in the content we are teaching and our knowledge of the topic; nevertheless, I believe there are some generic strategies that helpfully aid and supplement high-quality teacher-talk.

For me, there are three features found in the best teacher talk:

• New knowledge is linked to existing knowledge;
• Ideas are introduced in clear steps;
• Explanations make abstract ideas simple and concrete in the listener’s mind.

Here are ten simple strategies that I find very useful.

1. Do the work first. While strong knowledge of the content you are preparing to teach is a crucial starting point, it is not always enough. By trialling tasks before the students tackle them, you will be able to guide them past any hidden icebergs that could obstruct understanding. Granted, there is no need or time to do this with every task, so the best approach is to  pinpoint the harder tasks and problems. It is an especially useful strategy for the first time you teach a new topic, but it also helps you to hone and master your explanation of those you are already familiar with. I have found that this approach leads to focussed and thorough explanations (and questioning), and is a far more effective use of planning time than creating  slide show presentations.

2. Develop the strands. My best explanations are those that are sharply focused on the sweet spot between what students already know and what they need to know. Before explaining a new concept, start by ascertaining the class’ prior knowledge. You can do this by asking them to list what they already know,  conducting a round of whole-class questioning or completing a short list of questions or problems based on the content from previous lessons. Be sure to then pool all this knowledge. You can then mould your explanations around these shared ideas. Begin by filling gaps and clearing up the misconceptions the class already hold and then build in the new learning by taking up and extending upon the strands the students have introduced.

“Now that we all know that Sherlock Holmes was a Victorian private detective with very particular personal habits, let’s consider why Conan-Doyle’s character would have appealed to a Victorian audience…”

3. Tell stories. Daniel Willingham has written that stories are ‘psychologically privileged’. They are such wonderful resources because, as a species, we are hard-wired to attend to and remember narrative, perhaps more than any other form of imput. Stories also make for a linguistically and emotionally rich classroom. Many teachers are highly skilled at reconfiguring abstract concepts as narratives and stories for students to remember. Another useful way to use storytelling is through personal anecdotes closely linked to your learning point. I have found that my students champ at the bit for any autobiographical tidbit I send their way, even if I sometimes employ a little artistic licence in the name of education! Another strategy is to tell stories of your past students and how they overcame difficulties or how they made avoidable mistakes. Such stories offer salutary lessons from the past for your present charges.

4. Use analogies. I have written about the humble analogy before – here. Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick,  provide an excellent example of why analogy is so effective. Consider the two ways we could describe a pomelo to someone. We could say that a pomelo has sweet white flesh, is up to 25 cm in diameter and is the largest of the citrus fruits. Or we could say that it looks like a large grapefruit. The second description, the analogy, is easier to imagine because it builds upon what our listener already knows. This simple, easily-imagined description provides a concrete platform upon which more abstract details can be constructed later. Find the best analogies and cherish them – they are wonderful resources.

5. Bring the room to life. Many explanations are created in the moment in response to the unforeseen difficulties and questions that arise in any lesson. Making associative links to your immediate environment can really help with improvisation. Classroom objects, the students themselves and shared school experiences are so useful because they are a common currency, understood by all.

Let’s say you are teaching a new word: conscience. You start by sharing the dictionary definition: conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. Quickly, you realise by the nonplussed looks on your students’ faces that you have talked yourself into a cul-de-sac… so you improvise a little scenario:

“Let’s imagine that I am very hungry; I have missed breakfast this morning. I am walking past Dexter’s desk when I notice a Mars Bar has fallen out of his bag. Dexter’s back is turned; he’ll never realise it was me. I go to pick it up and at the last moment I stop myself. My conscience has stepped in…”*

6. Frontload your sentences. When introducing a new idea, avoid starting your sentences with dependent clauses such as ‘in spite of the fact’ or ‘contrary to popular opinion.’ Instead, frontload your sentences with the main item you wish to be learnt:

“An adverb is…”

“Photosynthesis is the process by which…”

“Approximately 10 million people died in…”

The use of simple sentences creates extra clarity and concision. Nevertheless, you will need to model academic spoken language too, so once your class have a secure understanding of the topic you will need to gradually increase the linguistic complexity of your delivery.

7. Model live. Show students how to solve problems and complete tasks by modelling them. Talk them through the key procedures in incremental steps and, just as importantly, talk them through your decision-making processes as an expert. Allow students to participate in the process gradually so that you can begin to guide their thinking before they have a go independently later on. In particular, live modelling is an underused but highly effective means of teaching writing. It can feel messy, slow and frustrating, and puts you under a good deal of pressure. The security blanket of using pre-written exemplars might be removed, but to put the writing process under the spotlight can have a  huge effect on those students who struggle to take on the thinking processes of a competent writer.

8. Use triple exemplars. Okay, so this is not technically a ‘teacher talk’ strategy, but it is so effective that it justifies inclusion. Show students three examples of excellent  – but very different – responses to the same task. It might be three opening paragraphs to crime stories, three pieces of artwork or three exam answers. Get students to consider why each is successful in its own right, but also the qualities common to all three. It is particularly effective in helping students to understand that quality tends to have both convergent and divergent elements.

9. Use the board. The best explanations are often responsive, interactive and peppered with questions. Over-detailed slide-shows zealously adhered to regardless of whether the students are keeping up or not can be deeply damaging. Keep slide-shows simple and make sure you have board-space to write on. Your notes, squiggles, arrows and diagrams are an open, incremental narrative. They have been produced bit by bit and so not only do they model your thinking processes, but they also allow students to look back at previous steps if they lose track, zone out for a moment or two, forget something or cannot hold everything at once in their working memories.

10. Try again. If your students do not understand the first time, what do you do? Do you blame them for lack of comprehension or do you start again, this time trying a slightly different tack? Tenacity and relentlessness are absolutely key, as is having a range of alternative strategies up your sleeve at any one time. Sometimes your explanation will not get through to your students. That’s normal. However, rather than giving up and blaming the student for lack of understanding, I have found that by going away and mulling it over, or seeking out a colleague’s advice, there is almost always a solution out there. Somewhere.

The best explainers never give up.

*

These strategies are just the tip of the iceberg – and what a great iceberg it is! Teacher talk is an exciting and inventive area of pedagogy.

Let’s not talk less, but talk better.

*This incident really happened in a lesson a couple of weeks ago. In a subsequent lesson, a student set up a trap for me by tying a Mars Bar wrapper to his bag and leaving it in a prominent position in the hope I would take the bait! Obviously, he had little faith in the strength of my moral compass!