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.

***

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!

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