Teaching students how to plan extended writing

tharby-shopping-listImage: @jasonramasami

Not for the first time, a trip to the supermarket has given me cause for thought about my English teaching. This time the catalyst was a shopping list written for me by my partner. Even though it was good of her to save me the effort, I found it extremely hard to follow. The vegetables, for instance, were not all listed together. It was only upon arrival at the baby wipes that I realised that I had missed the ‘parsnips’ (scribbled at the bottom), which left me with no other option but to traipse all the way over to the vegetables near the entrance again …

All this got me thinking about the way students and teachers plan for extended writing. You see, when I write my own list I am a much more efficient negotiator of supermarket aisles than I am when following somebody else’s. The act of writing a shopping list is really a plan of action, a cognitive support written to help us cope with the human and grocery overload of Morrisons on a Saturday afternoon. Without a list, we are likely to forget vital items and walk round in aimless circles. When we write a list ourselves we also think through the process of shopping, not just the items we need.

This phenomenon also explains why teaching children how to organise and structure their ideas is such a key aim of writing instruction; once a plan is in place, a child can concentrate on the finer details of grammar and ideas, instead of worrying about what they will write next. However, I do wonder whether I have often scaffolded too much and in doing so prevented children from learning the process of planning.

In my early years of teaching, I was often guilty of producing writing frames that looked a little like this:

Paragraph 1

Start with a discourse marker.
What did the quote ‘We are members of one body’ mean?
Why do you think ‘body’ was a good metaphor for Priestley to use?
How do you think this links to Priestley’s overall message about socialism?
What impact would this have had on Priestley’s 1945 audience?
And so on …

This would go on for a number of paragraphs – I even remember one or two double-sided plans! Of course, I was not teaching students how to structure and develop ideas; they were simply learning to ‘writing by numbers’. In fact,  like a shopping list written by someone else, it would confuse as often as it would guide.

The trouble with this kind of scaffolding, however, is that when all the dots are joined together and the misunderstandings ironed out, it can lead to an end-product with a veneer of sophistication, even though the writer has had to engage in little independent thought to get there. This is problematic, not least when you consider Professor Robert Coe’s suggestion that “Learning happens when you have had to think hard.” It is unwise to confuse the quality of the end product with the quality of learning; they are not always the same thing. Learning needs to be carried forward and applied in new contexts, otherwise it is meaningless. It is very possible, therefore, that a less-refined final product (planned and organised by the student themselves) could lead to more genuine learning than the polished product of too much scaffolding.

This is why in an age of hyper-accountability coursework is such a bad idea: how do we know whether a successful final piece is the product of student learning or the result of extensive teacher scaffolding?

So how do we strike a balance between teacher guidance and student thinking?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. I try to take students through the planning process by modelling each step and then allowing students to practise that step. This way, they do a lot of the thinking, yet I can shape the direction as necessary.

I am about to teach my my year 9s how to write a comparative poetry essay for the first time. This is the structure I have planned:

1. Teach both poems so that students understand content, poetic features and poet’s themes/ideas etc.
2. Model how to find points for comparison. Students independently find and list their own comparisons, e.g. Both poems explore the idea of the brutality of the battlefield through the personification of nature. They share and we pare down to the best.
3. Model how to organise points into a coherent essay structure. Students independently order their points. (I have created a simple grid for this with 5/6 rows, one for each paragraph, and two columns, one for each poem.)
4. Model how to add supporting evidence and analysis (in note form) to the plan. Students independently do the same, but using their evidence, not mine.
5. Model how to structure and write a comparative paragraph. Students micro-practise writing a paragraph independently, once again using their own points, not mine.
6. Students write extended essay in exam conditions.

As students get older and become more proficient they need fewer steps. Many of these stages can be skipped once the habits have become embedded. For example, as my GCSE students head towards their final exams, I regularly throw exam-style questions at them and give them 5-minutes to create a plan.

Planning extended writing is one of the most important self-regulation and metacognitive skills we can explicitly teach young people. Ultimately, they must learn to scaffold their own work – and they cannot do that if their teacher always does it for them.

Related post:

Beyond PEE

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!

Reflections on a successful student


 Image: @jasonramasami

“Can he get an A*?”

In the autumn term, when Rasheed’s father asked me this at year 10 parents’ evening, I squirmed in my seat. My mind screamed, “NO, he’ll get a B.” Eventually my vocal chords, with little assertion, found a compromise:

“I’m not sure, but if he works hard he might achieve an A.”

Rasheed – not his real name – has a MEG (a ‘minimum expected grade’) of a B, and I rather think that the anchoring effect, as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, was playing its hand. Kahneman writes:

“It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number the people considered – hence the image of an anchor.”

The effect has been shown to influence and constrain our thinking beyond our control. My prediction for Rasheed, therefore, was probably anchored to that ‘B’ that sits adjacent to his name on my class list. If you had asked for my reasons, I would have claimed that my prediction was based on my understanding of his current ability.

On closer scrutiny, my reasoning reveals an uncomfortable prejudice: my subconscious belief that a student working at Rasheed’s level at the start of year 10 is only capable of achieving a B by the end of the year. (Our students complete their English literature GCSE in year 10).

Here is a random paragraph from Rasheed’s work taken from October. He was writing about John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

“George was in disbelief as he sat ‘stiffly’ on the bank, he was frozen with shock. He also ‘looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away,’ this means that he was emotionaly numb. It may also suggest that he was angry at what his ‘right hand’ just did, it shot his friend. It shows that he wanted to blame it on something. Steinbeck used these words to replicate how frightened he was after he shot Lennie.”

There is little real analysis here, just a gunfire list of descriptive inferences. On such evidence, a B might seem more than a fair target.

At the end of June, after the students had completed their literature exam, we returned to Of Mice and Men to write their English language controlled assessment. Eight months on, here’s a sample of Rasheed’s writing:

“Furthermore, she reveals a more dominant side when she stands ‘over him’. Here Steinbeck describes physical levels to illustrate social hierarchy. To emphasise her power, Steinbeck uses the metaphor ‘whip’, a harsh sounding word that not only stings Crooks but the reader as they feel his pain. This onomatopoeic word generates images of slavery, which was abollished many years before, yet is still remembered to this day. Hence, we could speculate that Steinbeck felt a certain degree of sympathy for Crooks. Moreover, it conjures up images of a slave master, Curley’s Wife and Crooks, the slave. It is this that gives Curley’s Wife a vociferous tone. When Crooks had ‘reduced himself to nothing’, our sympathy is eroded away from Curley’s Wife and deposited into Crooks. On closer analysis, it might seem that by describing Curley’s Wife as powerful, he is actually exposing her weakness as Crooks is the only person she feels she can attack.”

This paragraph, written under controlled conditions, represents the journey Rasheed has gone on this year. Even though his ideas are not completely polished, you will notice a new-found maturity of style and depth of analysis. A* is a not a million miles away.

Rasheed, it is fair to say, has blossomed over the past three or four months, and not only when writing about Of Mice and Men! When we witness such success, it is important to attempt to unearth the causes.

First, of all it is worth mentioning the curriculum plan. It was a risk entering every year 10 student for English literature this year; we will find out in the summer how successful this approach has been. However, the quality of the controlled assessments we recently moderated, along with the supporting data, shows unanimously that a year of analytical writing practice has paid dividends across the year group. The quality of the writing about the novella was further enhanced, I believe, by the knowledge students had of the text; as they already knew the storyline and themes well, they were able to find extra layers of meaning with relative ease. Rasheed’s progress, then, is partly explained by the general picture.

Yet this is not the full story. I would like to claim a little bit of his success for myself. The most obvious affect I have had as a his teacher has been through my teaching of essay writing (see this post on life after PEE). I would contend that his writing has improved not only through an improvement in his ability to access more subtle ideas, but also through an improvement in his ability to express himself through analytical language. This improvement has been replicated across the class, to various degrees, and it is something I have taught explicitly through a range of modelling and scaffolding strategies. Pleasingly, I can detect my influence in his work.

But of course there is more. Rasheed exudes the growth mindset. His effort levels are quietly impressive. Since the beginning of term, he has often waited behind after lessons to ask what he can do improve and what we will be studying next. He listens, nods, says ‘thank you’ and goes. I will never forget the time he arrived at a lesson and asked which poem we were covering today. I told him – it was one we had not covered in class before – and he smiled.

“Yes, that’s one of my favourites,” he replied.

His progress, however, cannot just be explained away by in-school factors. Rasheed’s father, clearly, has sky-high expectations for his son (expectations, unfortunately, that were not shared by his English teacher at the beginning of term). The research into mindset suggests that there is a cultural element to the attribution of success. In many Asian cultures, success is more likely to be attributed to hard work and effort than it is in the West, where too often success is linked to talent. His cultural roots may well be significant.

Perhaps there are other opaque factors at play too, factors that we as educators may never fully grasp hold of. What has happened within his mind? What invisible neural connections have fizzed together this year? Is he a thinker? Does he sit at home on his bed mulling over what he has learnt today? Or does he pace around the house religiously rehearsing the sentences he will write in his next piece? Who knows?

Success is a complex concoction. To understand its richness accurately we must not only engage with robust educational research, but also zoom in on those fascinating individual case studies readily available to us. Our students.


Last week, I asked Rasheed whether he realises how much he has come on in English. His response is instructive:

“I didn’t know I could improve so much.”

Neither did I.

(Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to read my scribblings over the past few months. It is time for me to take a holiday from teaching and blogging. I aim to be back again in September. Enjoy the break.) 1DA9A47D-5771-4594-9E10-B11AEE763898 79B58F87-24F3-4F60-BF0D-50FE8E422E2D

A directory of my posts on teaching writing

The posts I have been most pleased with on this blog have been those on writing. I will cautiously assert that I think I am a better teacher of writing as a result of the thinking that has gone into these.

Today (12th May, 2015) I am updating to include some of my recent posts.

Here’s a short chronological directory:

1. The beauty of paired writing. Although I am sometimes sceptical about the efficiency of collaborative work in the English classroom, getting students to verbalise, adjust and hone sentences in pairs always seems to work a treat for me.

2. My butterfly: the sentence escalator. Modelling and redrafting sentences as a class is a great way to get students to think about the importance of sentence construction.

3. Modelling writing… and the meaning of life. Events close to home can shed metaphorical light on our understanding of learning. In this post, I discuss why we should not keep children in the dark and present a list of simple ways to model writing with and for students.

4. It takes time to write. I worry that we tend rush students through writing tasks without giving them time to think carefully about how they are constructing the piece. Here I list a few strategies for embedding ‘quality over quantity’.

5. Strategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher. Our English department has shifted to a culture of ‘closing the gap’ marking of extended writing over the past few months and in this post I outline some simple strategies to make this happen.

6. Differentiating the responsive way. Simple ways of scaffolding according to need during written tasks.

7. A benchmark of brilliance. My favourite post. Using a ‘mentor text’ to challenge students to write brilliantly from the moment they first walk through our doors. How better to foster a ripe climate for the ‘growth mindset’?

8. Multiple models and the journey to freedom. A range of methods for using student exemplars to demonstrate to students that success is very possible.

9. The Everest writing scaffold. How scaffolding is a long-term venture and the process through which I guide students to extended writing.

10. Pride in the product. How we can demonstrate to students that we value the quality of their written work.

11. What if we didn’t mark any books? I think the provocative title has made this one popular! Ways of providing regular feedback on extended writing without becoming a social recluse.

12. A second bite at the cherry: thoughts on redrafting writing. Why I believe redrafting is important and some simple methods to ensure that students take responsibility for improvement.

13. Beyond PEE: reuniting reading and writing. Why we must assess both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of analytical writing… plus a list of useful scaffolds for writing like a literary critic.

14. Reflections on a scuccessful student. A post that considers the progress one year 10 boy made across the year and muses on how hard it is to pin down the reason.

15. Distilling the best out of words. Not ostensibly a post about writing, but a post about how the spoken culture of the classroom feeds into writing.

16. 726 ways to achieve good exam results: or why the solution should be smaller than the problem. Often success criteria for writing are too abstract – I consider some ways to counter this problem here.

17. Slamming the door on bad writing habits. Once bad writing habits become embedded, they are very hard to remove. I suggest some solutions here.

18. Teaching students how to plan extended writing. Planning is essential to well organised writing; however, too much teacher scaffolding can hinder this.


Happy reading!

Beyond PEE: reuniting reading and writing


Image: @jasonramasami

As we know, levels have been consigned to the land of assessment-past. Dragging behind them, an equally rotting receptacle of wasted human endeavour, lopes their hateful, dunderheaded side-kick APP.

One of my greatest complaints about the use of the level descriptors in English has been the way that ‘reading skills’ have been defined.  It is not just the infuriating nebulousness of these descriptors that has stunted KS3 English for so long; it is also the way reading and writing have been torn asunder as if they are two separate unrelated entities. Under the old system, if a student wrote a three page analytical essay on a Shakespeare play, I would assess them only on their ‘reading skills’ and not how they crafted the language of the essay. This led to the daft scenario of weeks and weeks spent teaching a text and pulling it apart, and scant seconds on how to write analytically. Worse still, was the tasteless PEE formula I would promote. At best it was a clunky, reductive way to teach students how to find a quotation and explain it. Hardly challenging.

With the chance to move beyond levels, it is time for us to reassert the importance of writing in an academic, formal style. In English, our students should aspire to the tentative voice of the literary critic and nothing less. The first port of call, then, should be to write assessment criteria that marry reading analysis with analytical writing skill.

It is important to remember that many students do not have access to this quite niche academic register outside school. I teach in a very comprehensive school; I teach a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. Even the middle-class students in my neck of the woods, a fairly large town on the south coast with no university, seem to have little exposure to this genre in their family lives. (As far as I know, I have only once taught a student at GCSE whose parent has an undergraduate qualification in English. She got an A* in English literature.) My point is that all students of all abilities benefit from being explicitly taught this style because otherwise they will not only be unable to use it, but will also be pretty unaware that such a genre of writing exists in the first place!

I have made it my mission to do so this year. I teach it through lots of modelling and scaffolding, both verbal and written, and the sustained and regular use of this resource I have shared before:


Over the year, in every year group, at every ability level, I have seen genuine improvement. Not just in the how of the written style, but crucially in the what of the ideas the students generate. The great thing is that the resource itself is becoming increasingly redundant the more students have assimilated the style. It seems that inducting the students in the written genre not only makes them better academic writers, but better academic readers too. The language of the genre seems to go hand-in-hand with the ideas of the genre, each sustaining the other. David Didau’s new book, The Secret of Literacy (brilliant, by the way), has really helped to extend my understanding of this way of thinking.

Next year, I’m hoping to raise the bar again. What follows below is a list of analytical sentence structures we are going to be working with. I will interleave them through the curriculum so that they can be re-applied in a variety of contexts. Naturally, students will not just employ these sentences in their work, they will generate their own sentences too; I am not promoting a ‘write by numbers approach’. Those below, however, will form the bedrock of the tone I am hoping that my students will eventually adopt when writing about literature.

They are magpied from a variety of places. Feel free to use them if you like. However, please remember that they are domain-specific and not really applicable to any other subject. You might need to discover your own!

1. Reader response

The reader is caught between…

The reader is caught between empathy for Lennie and disgust at the cruel world he lives in.

2. Peeling away the layers of characterisation

On the exterior____________, yet on the interior we can infer__________.

On the exterior, Shylock appears desperate for revenge against the Christians who have wronged him, yet on the interior we can infer that he is he feels a deep sense of injustice for the wrongs he has suffered.

3. Character motives

________is motivated not only by___________________ but also by _____________________________.

Macbeth is motivated not only by his ambition to become king, but also by his desire to please Lady Macbeth.

4. Character development

By the close of the play/poem/novel the once _____________ has developed into_______________________ .

By the close of the poem, the once fearsome terrorist has developed into a polite and humble child who is willing to remove his shoes.

5. Reader positioning

(The writer) positions the reader/audience in favour of /against _____ by __________________________________________ .

Priestley positions the audience against Mr Birling by revealing his buffoonery in the early scenes.

6. First impressions

Our first impressions of ___________________________________ . (x3)

Our first impressions of the Birling family are that they are rich, arrogant and ‘pleased with themselves’.

7. Weighing up the importance

Even though/although ________________________________, ________________________________________.

Even though Curley’s Wife behaves at times like a cruel temptress, by the end of the novel we realise that she is a victim of a harsh, misogynist world.

8. Deepening analysis

At first glance ________________________________; however, on closer inspection ______________________________.

At first glance the family appear to be respectable members of society; however, on closer inspection, we can already sense the rift between father and son.

9. Identifying a common thread

Throughout the novel/poem/play ______________________________________________________________.

Throughout the poem, the poet explores the pain of unrequited love in a variety of ways.

10. Identifying the main thing

The most important word/sentence/idea/chapter/moment is _________________ because ________________________.

The most important word from this line is ‘top’ because it emphasises the superiority of the bird.

11. Close language analysis

Here, _________employs the word/phrase ‘__________’ to suggest/imply/reinforce ____________________________.

Here, the Inspector employs the phrase ‘millions and millions’ to reinforce the idea that Eva Smith represents many other working-class, Edwardian girls.

12. Exemplifying an idea through a character/setting/event

__________ reveals her/his belief in _____through her/his description of______________________________________.

Stevie Smith reveals her belief in the cyclical nature of war through her description of the ‘ebbing tide of battle’.

13. Contrasting alternative viewpoints

Some readers might propose that__________________; other readers, however, might argue________________________.

Some readers might propose that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock was cruel and unfair; other readers, however, might argue that Shakespeare was simply reflecting the views of the society he lived in.

14. Noting  subtleties

Here, the writer cleverly________________________________________________________.

Here, Ted Hughes cleverly employs the gruesome image of a dying hare to remind the reader once again of the way war targets the innocent.

15. Proposing a tentative idea

Perhaps, (writer’s name) was hinting that ______________________________________________________.

Perhaps Steinbeck was hinting that human beings are no different from the rest of the animal kingdom.

16. Contrast

Although both _______________________________________, they ______________________________.

Although both writers explore the idea of love, they express their ideas in very different ways.

17. Comparison

Both ______________ and ______________share ____________________________________________________.

Both Beatrice and Shylock share feelings of anger and frustration.


There are countless other sentence structures we could work with too. I think that less is more when it comes to this kind of thing. If we throw too much at them, they will catch less than we hope. Hence why these need to be introduced slowly, carefully and in context. Regular repetition too will be vital to their success.

Related posts:

The Everest writing scaffold

Again and again and again: the unheralded beauty of repetition

A second bite at the cherry: thoughts on redrafting writing


Since Christmas, I have adapted my English teaching by introducing a culture of redrafting into my lessons. It is impossible to ask students to redraft every single written offering – time constraints do not allow – but it is relatively straightforward, especially if you bring homework into the mix, to make it a regular part of the learning cycle. When you consider that a professional writer – or even a layperson such as an educational blogger! – will edit and redraft rigourously and automatically, it is quite an embarrassment that eight years into my career the teaching of the process is still relatively new to me.

My reading of US teacher Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence inspired me to move towards this approach. Berger presents an idealistic image of students working as craftsmen, critiquing one another’s work and producing multiple redrafts – with excellent work the eventual result.

Although Berger’s vision is very laudable, there are a number of questions I am still grappling with. What follows are my reflections.

First off, redrafting motivates students. You might expect to hear moans of, “I’ve finished, why have I got to do it again?” ad-nauseum. In truth, I have asked over one-hundred students to redraft at least two pieces of work in the past three months, and only once have I had a complaint. It’s difficult to pin down a reason for this positivity, but I have a number of hunches: all are given more than one shot at success, all have an opportunity to feel pride and satisfaction, high expectations are made crystal clear and, let’s be honest, it is usually easier to write the second draft than the first.

Although motivation is desirable, I think students should learn from the process too. The first and second draft of a piece of writing require different kinds of thinking. To help explain my thinking, I am going to use cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s simple diagram of the human ‘working memory’ (taken from Why Don’t Students Like School).

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The ‘working memory’ holds the things we are thinking about at any given time. ‘Long-term memory’, on the other hand, is the ‘vast storehouse’ in which we house our knowledge of the world. Imagine my students are completing an essay on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. During the first draft, the students will be using information from the environment (see diagram): this might be the play text itself, their notes, an essay plan, a model example, task directions, written targets from their previous writing task, etc. In their long-term memories, ideally, will be factual knowledge (from the language, plot and themes of the play right down to how to spell ‘Capulet’) and procedural knowledge (how to structure a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, etc.). Unfortunately, working memory has limited space – our mind is said to be able to hold between 5 – 9 items at one time, known as ‘cognitive load’. As students are writing their first drafts, pressure will inevitably be put on the working memory. If you struggle to spell ‘Capulet’ – i.e. it is not stored in your long-term memory – you will either have to plough-on, guessing how to spell it, or focus attention on this and other spellings. Perhaps, as a result, you will not have enough room in your working memory to also clearly explain Shakespeare’s use of metaphoric language. It’s difficult to think of multiple things at once. Either way, the first draft will be lacking, especially for the weaker writer with less stored in long-term memory.

The great advantage of writing a second draft is that as the bulk of the essay is now written, it becomes available in the immediate environment, and thus lessens the strain on the working memory. Some of the problems with cognitive load are now circumvented.  It is, therefore, much easier for a student to make telling improvements while editing and redrafting because they do not have to hold so much information at one time and can now isolate their attention.

I am aware that the above is an over-simplification of the complex role of the working-memory. There is still much we do not understand about the human brain. However, I think it usefully represents how hard it is for students to make meaningful improvements to writing skill when they are knee-deep in difficult content.

Of course, as part of the redrafting process it is essential that time is built in for individual reflection, editing and proofreading before the second draft is started. It is important that students do write out a second draft from beginning to end. As well as the thrill of seeing your once-scrawled efforts becoming something more refined, the repetition itself might also be crucial to long-term learning. I have just finished reading Graham Nuthall’s brilliant The Hidden Lives of Learners. Nuthall’s fascinating research found that to learn and remember a concept, students must encounter it in its entirety ‘on at least three different occasions’. This is intriguing. Could the redrafting process become integral to learning by providing students with a further opportunity to revisit the key concepts they have studied?

One of the problems I have faced is that some students equate redrafting with ‘writing it up in best’. We can all very easily copy or type out our own writing tidily without engaging with its content. For a handful of students with weak literacy skills, this kind of handwriting and spelling practice is probably very useful. For the majority, it is unlikely that they will engage usefully with the key concepts again through this approach. I have had many a bright student return me, with a sheepish grin, a carbon-copy of the original draft.

So how will I combat this problem in future? Well, one idea is that students should be made accountable for their improvements. By stipulating that they must make regular improvements, and that these improvements must be highlighted, there is no hiding place. By simply asking students to make one change per sentence, or another arbitrary requirement, there becomes no option but to engage with meaning. On top of this, they could note not just where they have responded to teacher feedback, but where they have made autonomous changes of their own too. Of course, this also makes marking easy – I will need only look at the highlighted sections, not the piece in its entirety. In some cases, where the first draft is of a high quality, students might bypass the redraft completely and transfer their knowledge to a completely different extension task.

Redrafting brings with it marking implications. The idea that we might have to wade through two drafts rather than one is more than off-putting. My solution has been ‘rolling live feedback’. As students are writing, I call them up to my desk one-by-one to read through their drafts. Taking into account that feedback can be useful at any point in the drafting process and that kids tend to work at different speeds, I have found this a very successful strategy. It is a useful differentiation tool too: quantity, timing and style of feedback can be tailored accordingly.  In fact, it leads to less after-lesson marking, not more. I also find that it is important to make them aware that I have deliberately left errors for them to find. That way I avoid students coming to the assumption that everything left unmarked is correct and in no need of change!

Another problem I have encountered is the flippant ‘it’s only a first draft; it doesn’t matter if I make mistakes’ mentality. This, however, has a flip side. Students are more likely to take risks if they know that they can have a second bite of the cherry.

The ‘depth-versus-breadth’ conundrum is still a concern, and will be more so with the tougher, content-rich GCSEs due to be implemented from 2015. From an anecdotal standpoint, I am convinced that depth is of greater importance than breadth; however, I am not convinced that Ron Berger’s ‘minimum of four drafts’ and ‘it’s only finished when it’s an A’ are always a wise use of time. Be that as it may, I have seen higher quality work across the ability range in the last three months than I have seen in the previous eight years. For that reason I am going to continue with my strategy.

In summary, suggestions going forward are as follows:

1. Ensure students understand redrafting in terms of the ‘ethic of excellence’ AND possible advantages to memory/learning.

2. Make sure students are made accountable for both self-instigated and teacher-instigated improvements.

3. Consider alternatives to redrafting for very able students by considering how they can transfer their knowledge to another task.

4. Keep up a constant dialogue about, and modelling of, the practicalities and meta-cognitive processes involved in editing and redrafting.

5. Consider whether there might be benefits to memory from spacing out the redrafts.

6. Ensure that I help students cope with the fact that excellence is often elusive.



Pride in the product: how much do we value our students’ work?


During a lunch break last week, three male English teachers in our thirties huddled together in the corridor to admire the writing of a thirteen year-old girl. As Ed and I marvelled and cooed at the craft and accuracy of her descriptive sentences, Gavin – her teacher – raised her open book on his fingertips with all the awe and nervous tenderness of a father presenting his new-born child to visiting grandparents. Gavin talked with pride about her work and about how he had guided her to this standard.

It was a lovely moment. Here was the work of a student who clearly values the act of writing and exerts a huge effort to produce such a final product. Equally, her teacher’s pride in her work makes his challenging job all the more worthwhile.

And now for the dampener. Unfortunately, too many students do not value the act of writing like this. Too much written work in secondary school is scrappy, chock-full of thoughtless errors that have been repeated to the point of automaticity. It is expedient to shift the blame: ‘it should have been taught at primary school’ or ‘that child is bone idle’ or ‘he’s just not clever enough to write properly’.

My question is this: if we do not give all students the opportunity to find value in their written work, is it not a surprise that so much of it is littered with preventable mistakes?

Hattie and Yates in Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn have summarised some very interesting research into how we value the product of our labours. There is considerable research into what is known as the IKEA effect – that we place huge value on those products that we have had a role in producing, especially if this has been challenging and we have had to exert a large amount of effort. Plenty of research validates this finding. One study that caught my eye involved the construction of LEGO models. The participants whose LEGO models were immediately dissembled after production valued their products less than those who were allowed to keep their products intact. Other studies corroborate the finding that we only value products that we have fully completed.

Hattie and Yates sum up with this food for thought:

“Such findings confirm a simple truth: that people will value their labour, and what it produces remarkably strongly, and this goal overpowers other considerations. Try asking yourself: would you enjoy going to work if everything you did, or made, was not valued, was rendered meaningless, discarded, or even destroyed, as soon as it was completed? Just how strongly would you exert effort if this was the case? What implications can you see for valuing student work, and for encouraging students to genuinely exert themselves?”

All of this points clearly in one direction. To demonstrate that we fully value the products they create, we must give students kind and careful feedback, as well as the time, patience and opportunity to reflect on and redraft their work based on our feedback.

But is this enough?  What happens to the work after this? Can we get our students to value their work to an even greater extent? The simple answer is that we find more opportunities to celebrate the final product. I do not think we do this well in the secondary sector and I think this has become engrained over the decades. I left secondary school eighteen years ago and I do not remember one piece of work that I completed in those years (except for one which I will come to in a minute). I do, however, remember a few treasures from my primary years.

This is not to say that there is no celebration of student work at secondary. The problem is that the majority of students go through secondary without having any public recognition of the products they are producing day-by-day. In my English department, we invite the crème-de-la-crème of KS3 writers to a lovely presentation evening every July. This amounts to about twenty students whose work achieves very public recognition – or, if we are cynically-minded, 740 students whose work is overlooked. Of course, it is vital we recognise the talent in our midst, yet I cannot help feeling that most kids are institutionally undervalued, simply because they are exceptional at nothing.

Ron Berger provides a tantalising solution to this problem. In his book An Ethic of Excellence Berger discusses his approach to excellence through redrafting and critique. Yet there is another crucial aspect to his approach: the product of every student’s labours is celebrated. They exhibit their products, take part in gallery critiques, invite in experts in the field of study to critique the work, and the work itself is anchored in real-life contexts. A culture of value pervades everything; students, whatever their ability, are given the sense that the quality of their work is of great importance, not just to the teacher, but to everybody. Students are not just working to such inspiring goals as ‘this term’s assessment’ or ‘moving from a level 5 to a level 6’, they are working to a deadline when their work will be publically shared. Concrete goals are intrinsic to Berger’s vision.

Berger’s rural Massachusetts elementary school context is, of course, very different to mine. However, if I am to value student work more than I do now there are many simple strategies I could easily employ. These strategies must conform to three  features: 1) every student’s work must be valued with no opt-out option; 2) they must not add to workload otherwise they will be unsustainable; 3) students must be made aware they are leading up to this point of public recognition from as early as possible.

Here are some I am looking to embed more regularly, with at least one a half-term.

  • Creating benchmarks of brilliance. Every student attaches a piece of great work to their book/folder as a signature of what they can do in the subject. (See here.)
  • Class anthologies. Creating an anthology which includes something from every student and is then distributed to all and/or published online. The only piece of work I remember from high school is a poem published in a class anthology my Y9 teacher produced.
  • Blogging student work. I do not have the ICT facilities available to do this regularly, but it would certainly be manageable once an academic year.
  • Producing a piece to present to parents on parents evening. This would be a great way to involve parents in the process.
  • Regular use of gallery critique in lessons. David Didau has written a lovely blog post about this here.
  • Having classes present their work to another class. There are countless ways this can be done, but the knowledge an outsider will read your work is hugely motivating.

I am sure there are plenty of other ways to do it – feel free to leave any ideas in the comments box.

We often wonder why our students forget so much of what we hoped they would learn. Might this be because we never give them a chance to value their work? And finally: if we don’t value their work, why should they?