Beautiful writing across the curriculum

We all recognise that effective writing, reading and speaking skills are absolutely vital for the pupils we teach. So this blog, based on my talk at ResearchEd Norwich, focuses on that very complex but very important process of writing. I’ve written about it a little before when I discussed academic writing in English essays, but here I widen the scope to look at accurate and cohesive writing across school subjects.

The recorded version is available here.

The importance of writing

We know that clear and confident written expression is key to both academic success and success in later life. Jennifer Webb expresses it brilliantly when she says that “those that can successfully communicate have the power to change things and to show their worth”, and those that can’t are effectively disenfranchised from society (Teach Like a Writer: 2020). Written communication is necessary for self-expression, self-esteem and social empowerment.

Unfortunately, we know that low literacy disproportionately affects the disadvantaged, and children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to reach proficiency in their written communication. The oft-quoted statistic from The National Literacy Trust finds that 1 in 6 adults have very poor literacy, such that make daily tasks challenging, and this just isn’t good enough. Geoff Barton writes that “we need to keep feeling angry” about this; we should feel angry that after upwards from eleven years of education, so many people don’t have the confidence they need in writing, and that low literacy continues to be a barrier (Don’t Call It Literacy: 2014).

So effective writing is both a reflection and a tool of social justice, but it’s also a really important learning process in itself. Sometimes we’re tempted to see writing as merely a product of learning — it’s done at the end of a lesson or a sequence of lessons to showcase what has been learned. But in reality, writing is both a product and a process of learning. Through writing, we push our thinking, process and synthesise our knowledge, and reach higher levels of conceptual understanding. I think this has lots to do with the actual physicality of writing: when we write, we slow down and we’re limited by the speed of our handwriting or typing. As a result, we have time to think, to reflect, and to push ourselves into more advanced or more nuanced ideas. And this is reinforced by the research. The authors of Make It Stick reviewed studies that found that students in classrooms which embedded regular extended writing into their lessons scored significantly higher in tests. Because writing involves retrieval, elaboration and generation of material, writing leads to deeper learning (Brown, Roediger and McDaniel: 2014).

The difficulty of writing

We know that writing aids learning, but we also recognise that many don’t enjoy it. We’ve all anecdotally experienced that silent groans when we’re setting up any sort of extended writing. It seems likely that this negativity towards writing has a lot to do with the belief that writing is a difficult thing to do. Steven Pinker references Darwin, who affirmed writing is an “unnatural act”: unlike speaking, we don’t just learn it left to our own devices (The Sense of Style: 2014). Instead, writing needs to be explicitly taught and routinely practised.

It’s also easy to underestimate how many complex processes writing involves, and when we expect students to put everything together in a piece of writing too quickly, it can lead to cognitive overload. Daisy Christodoulou has likened extended writing to a football game — you don’t get better by playing endless full games of football. Instead, you break the game down into individual units, for example passing, tackling, performing a throw-in — and writing is the same. She advocates an approach in which we isolate small parts of writing process, practise them deliberately, and then start putting them all together so students have purposeful access to the knowledge of what good writing looks like (Making Good Progress: 2017). This is also really important in banishing that myth that some children are just better at writing that others, as if writing is an inherent ability, not something that is learned. Yes, some children do pick up fluency in writing more effortlessly than others, but that doesn’t mean that the others won’t learn it — it just means that we need to teach it more explicitly.

The responsibility of writing instruction

It’s completely understandable that some teachers lack confidence in this area: we probably don’t remember how or even if we were taught to write. For us, it’s just something we do, and we might not feel that we do it particularly well. This lack of confidence can be a big barrier for our teaching, but generally, teachers are the best communicators in existence, and it is in breaking down writing structures that we can build our own confidence, as well as the confidence of our students.

And this is important, because we are all responsible for teaching writing. We can’t just leave it to our English colleagues. Because beautiful writing involves knowledge of what to write, as well as how to write, writing is best taught in subjects with clearly defined content. As we teach that disciplinary content, we need to be teaching how to communicate that content explicitly too. Expert writing absolutely can be taught, and teaching it well is transformative for our students.

Here is the approach:

An approach to beautiful writing across the curriculum

Word-level

First, decide the individual high-leverage words that illuminate writing in your subject area. Work together with other subject specialists to discuss these words — collect word lists, find those gems that really shine in student writing. Lots of these words will be Tier 3 words — the specialist vocabulary that’s needed in each subject area, like photosynthesis, allegro, nucleus, to use Alex Quigley’s examples (Closing the Vocabulary Gap: 2018). But it’s Tier 2 words that can be really powerful in creating fluency in writing. Tier 2 words are those valuable words that appear across the curriculum, but aren’t typically used in everyday talk. Things like abolished, irrevocably, authority, fundamental, paradigm. As Quigley says, it’s this Tier 2 vocabulary that is essential to cracking the academic code.

As an example of how this can be done excellently, we can look at the approach of my colleague Kate Finlay, an incredible and dynamic head of design technology. She recognised that her students faced a literacy barrier. They were strong verbally, but found written communication really hard. They struggled to put the words on paper that reflected their potential. So she did an analysis of specifications and exam papers and came up with a list of key words she wanted all her pupils to understand, learn and use. From that word list, she then worked backwards, tracing where her team would explicitly teach these words in KS4, KS3, and she’s now even thinking about joining up with vocabulary instruction at KS2. All the teachers in her department — across the different subject areas of food tech, DT, computing — foreground the same words continually — things like durability, malleability, describe, compare, although — words that span the tiers. Because students now have a much stronger grasp of high-leverage vocabulary, they’re more confident and proud of the writing they produce.

Any word list is gloriously subjective and random, and here is my currency random list of vocabulary gems. You can also read more about ‘gateway’ vocabulary here.

Sentence level

After word level, we want to be building to beautiful sentences. This is really where we need to slow right down. We need to model how to write an accurate sentence and verbalise our thinking as we model. Chris Curtis actually writes in front of his class, talking them through what he’s starting with, then how he might continue, where he’s putting his punctuation — really showing the thought-processes that go into writing — before he gets his class to have a go themselves (How to Teach English: 2019). This meticulous, clear process demonstrates to children that writing takes thought.

At the most basic level of accurate sentences, we can use the direct instruction approach of Expressive Writing, shared with me by Thomas Fisher: first you name, then you tell more. Full stop. Modelling this might look a little like the picture below, and at each step I would stop and articulate potential inaccuracies, including spelling and punctuation. The aim here is to ensure 100% of the class have 100% accuracy.

Now when we’re happy we’ve got a secure sentence that’s accurately punctuated, we might want to start modelling some upgrades. Again, each needs to be taught slowly, modelled carefully on the board and talked through clearly.

Extended-text level

We now want to delve into more extended level writing, which allows pupils to communicate more complex, linked ideas and synthesise their knowledge into longer writing. By ‘extended’ I don’t necessarily mean pages and pages of text. Extended writing can just be one paragraph, but of course the longer the piece of work, the more opportunities students have to convey and develop their deeper understanding.

Oracy is clearly a vital precursor to writing here:

  • Get students to talk through their knowledge, recalling and retrieving information, and putting it together verbally.
  • Put vocabulary prompts on the board that students must use as they talk.
  • Try tight time-frames: pair pupils up and give them 30 seconds to explain a concept using three named connectives.
  • Give each student something to argue or debate: the winner is she/he who used an ‘although’ sentence.

When oracy tasks have given pupils confidence in their ideas, it’s really important to model effective planning and to plan carefully as a class before you set children off to write independently. The reality is that pupils need a huge amount of scaffolding before they’re able to plan cohesive pieces independently. My preferred method is collectively building a mind-map on the board, eliciting information from children, and then standing back to review, and organise:

From there, we use the numbers to write topic sentences together which will form those really important first sentences of each paragraph.

Subject-specialist scrutiny of writing

Most importantly, subject specialists must consider carefully what gorgeous writing looks like in their subject areas. On the whole, generic whole-school rules or literacy expectations don’t really work: they’re just too vague to have a significant impact on writing across a school. The EEF recommendations from 2019 outline just this: they recognise that each subject has its own unique way of communicating, and it’s up to us to notice this and teach it clearly. We need to empower all students to write like a geographer, scientist, or mathematician.

I share Christine Counsell’s wariness of the generic, and in her blog she outlines how a strong teacher might reflect on her class’s writing. She imagines a head of history reading a class set of essays, and asking herself a series of questions that will inform her planning for future lessons:

  • What is a strong argument in these pieces of writing? What might a strong argument look like?
  • In what ways is the writing structured and organised? Which are most successful?
  • What is giving these students power as they survey and wonder, judge and reckon?

These series of questions embrace the power of our teaching to open doors for students to allow them to “survey, wonder, judge and reckon”. They see the process of knowledge and the process of writing as overlapping, and this close and enthusiastic scrutiny of pupil work will no doubt make us better, more responsive teachers.

We can do the same thing with exemplar work:

Taken from AQA’s geography specimen material, this piece of writing starts with a simple, confident sentence which follows the ‘first you name and then you tells more — full stop’ approach previously outlined. We’ve got a nice appositive sentence, which despite missing a capital letter, works well to showcase background knowledge. There’s also a lovely connective of causation ‘as a result’, which serves to link ideas chronologically.

Here we’ve got a gorgeously written computing answer, which involves the complex skill of comparing:

We can see just how many connectives of comparison have been used, all beautifully partnered with a comma: whereas, despite this, however, furthermore. There’s strong Tier 2 vocab: simultaneous, advantage, enables. Right at the bottom, we’ve got a semi-colon. All these work together to reflect this student’s confidence in both their knowledge and their expression.

We could even be even more aspirational, and look here at this story from the BBC news website in a PE lesson:

We’ve got important vocabulary in anthem, discrimination, brutality. We’ve got that ‘meanwhile’ connective, which serves to widen the picture painted by the reporter. And we’ve got that powerful appositive at the start of the last paragraph which gives that extra information.

Self-Check

After our students have written, we need to model the process of proof-reading, checking and correcting. Lots of us are now moving to teaching with visualisers, and these are great in putting student work immediately to display, and working with classes to look at what’s been written, and how it’s been written. When we’re asking for pupils to redraft, it’s great to give them a writing focus. I’m always impressed when there are extended paragraphs redrafted not for content, but for expression. Frequently, you can see the improved fluency in the second version.

To finish

These are the things I think work in improving the quality of writing across schools. There is no quick fix — any literacy intervention must be sustained and driven by subject specialists — but I hope you’ll share my belief that it is transformative.

So, give it your attention, break down and model the processes, and share your gems with colleagues and students.

Elisabeth Bowling @elucymay

July 2020

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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