Slamming the door on bad writing habits


Image: @jasonramasami


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.


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.


Damn, not again!

15 thoughts on “Slamming the door on bad writing habits

  1. I totally agree with everything that you have said. As a Year 6 teacher, I too have been telling parents the same things over and over. We have just completed last year’s sats GPaS test which shows that my children understand grammar rules and yet they still do not use basic punctuation. I do believe that short focused pieces of writing are at least part of the answer. When we do slow wirting, it does show lead to an improvement. And I think that doing more of this type of writing activity can only help. As a primary teacher, at least I can demand consistent writing standards across all subjects and I do think that is important.
    It seems really strange that after years of having full stops and capital letters drilled into them, so many children find it hard to use them correctly. I just keep on plugging away and hope to gradually improve their understanding and independent use of correct punctuation.

  2. Completely agree with quality not quantity and the whole school approach to literacy. I have students in year 9 who are still not confident in using a comma. Reactive intervention at this point should have been proactive intervention two years ago. Great post.

  3. I think that often our students are allowed to slip into bad habits, even if they were once pretty good. I am SO fed up of the lack of capital letters in my year 12 history essays. If I have to read anymore about germany and russia I will scream! I speculate that going backwards is partly due to all the time they spend texting etc. I also think we teachers are then at fault. Inking in some capitals when we mark does not send a message that this is something they need to really consciously try over.
    When my five year old just would not form a lower case a or d without there being a hole in the top the only thing that solved it was sitting over him for a few weeks as he wrote and brutally rubbing out whole words every tine he got it wrong. That worked… Similarly when I first got into leaving comments on blogs a few years back they tended to be littered with typos. I think I just thought others should be tolerant. Having all my carefully thought out points snarkily undermined by people pointing out I had no credibility as a teacher if I couldn’t spell worked wonders. In fact my spelling has distinctly improved since joining the online world.
    My conclusion is that the consequence of getting it wrong has to be annoying enough to force something into the front of your mind every time you undertake the activity, until the habit is broken.

    • Thanks Heather. Your comment is a great addition to the post – I wish I had written it myself. I’ve often thought about the role of consequence in writing accuracy. At my school there are lots of consequences for bad behaviour or wearing uniform incorrectly but not for sloppy writing. I wonder if I’m missing a trick.

  4. I have writing non negotiables with my year 4 class. Once I have taught something and they have shown that they understand it, it becomes non-negotiable; ie if I see it in their work I make a bit of a fuss and they have to stay in and correct it at playtime. We are currently eradicating bad habits with should of, would of, could of, are and our, and there, their and they’re. Sentence punctuation is also non-negotiable as is joined up handwriting. This may seem harsh but the children have responded really well. They judge each other if they see errors in someone else’s work and they are enjoying seeing the progress in their work. They also suggest non negotiables as we cover new topics! These habits need breaking. I taught year six last year and found it so frustrating that some of these bad habits had not been broken before it was too late.

  5. This is something I think about a lot as a writer/parent, in relation to my own children and their education. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only solution is that accuracy must really, really, really matter to the writer. I understand what you say about bad habits, but I think it may be also about children not seeing the *point* in writing in a technically correct manner, or at least not feeling motivated to do so.

    I also suspect that the current focus on SPaG might end up making the situation worse. We are essentially saying to children that ‘this matters because we need you to get through this test’, rather than asking them to think about WHY such things matter in the context of being a writer, and why accurate expression is actually important.

  6. I’m not quite sure what age group you teach, but I have a thought. Over the years, I’ve noticed that my own writing is strongly influenced by whatever I’m reading. I don’t mean content, of course. I just mean that when I’m reading things like ‘Great Expectations’, my writing tends to be richer; but if I’ve only been reading Hemingway or the newspaper for a few weeks, I find my writing getting more terse, for example.

    So I think there’s a possibility that what the children are reading has an effect. Also, are they old enough to be texting and emailing a lot? If they are, they could be spending a lot more time reinforcing those bad English habits than you’d even think!

    You probably don’t have much control over what kids read at home, or if/how they communicate digitally, but perhaps it’s something you could mention to parents.

  7. Pingback: Education Panorama (April ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

  8. Great article highlighting an issue in most classrooms.
    I have used this with my primary aged pupils › MarkingMen

    It gets them into good habits and has been helpful for my more reluctant writers as they get to draw briefly at the end! The ‘marking men’ can be adapted for individual too.

  9. Pingback: A directory of my posts on teaching writing | Reflecting English

  10. Pingback: The holy trinity of English teaching: direction, immersion and habit | Reflecting English

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