From verbose to succinct: teaching academic writing

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Sam is a bright, motivated and ambitious year 10 girl. She recalls pretty much everything she’s taught in lessons and develops insightful ideas based on her knowledge. Despite working hard and getting so much right, she falls down massively when it comes to writing. On paper, she’s often muddled and incoherent. Her sentences go on for days and her paragraphing lacks any real order or structure. Her ideas, so fluent when spoken, become a meandering muddle that are impossible to decipher.

Sam needs to be taught how to write.

My team and I found that Sam’s issues are replicated among many of our pupils. They have such good ideas, but struggle to get them down on paper in a logical way. The causes for this are complex and overlapping. Perhaps it’s in part to an insecure mastery of writing at KS2. It might be the lack of familiarity with academic models of writing. Part of me thinks it might also down to an attempt to imitate really advanced writing styles that outstrip actual understanding.

Whatever the cause, we have the task of countering it. We need to define what they need to know to be able to write academically, and teach them to write explicitly. In our knowledge-rich curriculum, where focus is largely on literature and its development through time (for more on this, have a look here), it can feel that there is less time to teach the nuts and bolts of academic writing. We’ve also, thankfully, done away with narrow expectations of paragraphing structure (the dreaded Point-Evidence-Explain), leaving room for us to develop more flexible forms of writing. In short, we’re teaching during a time of change and opportunity: it’s up to us to decide what academic discourse will look like for the pupils we teach.

As a result, we’ve dedicated a substantial amount of department time to answering the question: how do we get pupils to write formally and fluently about academic subjects?

It’s a work in progress, but here is the record of our current thinking:

Sites of greatest impact

These not particularly aesthetically pleasing guidelines are in their infant stages, and I hope to be writing more about our developments in teaching them in the future. But just by outlining the key requirements to pupils we are already seeing improvements in their formal writing style. Here are the sites of greatest impact so far.

  1. Topic sentences

Of all the guidelines above, the most transformative has been the prioritisation of topic sentences. Not only do they clarify writing, they also clarify thought. Sam is now required to separate and categorise her ideas before setting them down on paper. She knows she needs to restrict her writing to one clear idea per paragraph and link her ideas fluidly. To teach them, I just looked over a class set of work, wrote down the different ways they opened paragraphs, and asked them to decide which worked best in introducing the topic of the paragraph. They could immediately see the difference between those that worked well and those that didn’t. Then they spent a few minutes re-writing the weaker ones. It was quick; it worked immediately.

2. Analytical verbs

Analytical verbs are an example of tier 2 vocabulary that help “release the conceptual” (Woodcock, J 2005). The language necessitates further and deeper thought. In selecting the right analytical verb, pupils hone their ideas and develop them and different verbs make them think differently about authorial purpose and intent. For example, asking a class to use the words ‘celebrate’, ‘expose’, ‘insist’ or ‘challenge’ made them think about Russell’s reasons for writing Blood Brothers in layered and complex ways. Their writing became more precise and developed.

3. Embedded quotations

I hate a floating quotation. HATE them. Who says it? To whom? When? A random, unembedded quotation is everything wrong with English pedagogies that emphasise paragraphing structures over content of writing: the pupils are clearly throwing a quotation in there because that is what P.E.E requires, rather than because it bolsters their ideas about a text in any way. So asking pupils to shorten the quotations they use, often down to one or two words, and embedding every single one does two things: first it makes their ideas and arguments actually make sense; and secondly, it makes their writing fluid and a delight to read. It’s also easier to embed one word quotations than chuck in an unwieldy huge one.

4. Discourse markers

The Writing Revolution is really helpful in outlining because-but-so, which Lia Martin’s wonderful blog outlines brilliantly. Later in the book, however, there is a section of more advanced discourse markers which hone pupils writing at sentence level. I use their suggested words to get students to craft beautiful sentences starting ‘Although’, ‘Nevertheless’ and ‘Whilst’. Not only does it sound fancy, it also forces pupils to weigh up two opposing ideas in close succession.

Ongoing concerns

  1. The sequence of teaching

Our work in this area is in its infancy, and there’s lots more rich discussions to had about how to get pupils to write well, when to introduce each new expectation, and how to get them to practise each rule explicitly. Following a fortnightly extended writing expectation, I’ve experimented with the following order of teaching in a bright Y7 class:

This order worked quite well, but leaves out my second main concern…

2. The scourge of the thesis statement

For me, thesis statements are hard to write, let alone teach. You need to know exactly what your argument is, with strong overarching ideas, to be able to write one successfully. As we know, writing is often the vehicle of thought as well as the expression of it, so of course we don’t know what the whole point is until after we’re done. Our year 11s are still wedded to the shudderingly horrible ‘Shakespeare presents ambition in many ways, using many different characters and many different techniques.’ Eurgh.

One solution raised by my colleague was to get the pupils to start half way down the first page and to leave a space to add in the thesis statement at the end. It’s worth a try, but I’m still tempted to get the students to jump straight in.

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

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