Writing at a distance

By Andy Tharby

Extended writing and distance learning form an ‘interesting’ relationship. The last few weeks have certainly taught this particular writer a thing or two about the challenges that teachers face when setting writing tasks for children to complete at home. This blog is written from my dual perspective as a secondary school teacher and as a parent who is ‘home-schooling’ his primary age son.

Distance writing creates some unique challenges for children. First, there are practical issues around IT hardware and software: many children are now expected to have become proficient typists overnight and are expected to navigate their way through software that is new to them. Then there are issues around motivation and confidence: there is no physical teacher at hand to inspire, support or cajole, no peers around to discuss ideas with or to help inculcate the classroom norms of perseverance and effort. Perhaps the biggest issue is that distance writing makes scaffolding and differentiation, most especially those crucial in-the-moment conversations between teacher and student, much harder to achieve.

The net result, unfortunately, seems to be a widening of the ‘writing gap’. Proficient and motivated writers are given the space and freedom to develop and elaborate their ideas; indeed, some of the best work I’ve seen this year has been written during the last few weeks of lockdown. On the flip side, less-proficient and less-motivated writers are faced with greater struggles and the quality of their written work seems to dip. It could even be argued that by providing multiple opportunities for children to write poorly, we inadvertently help them to ingrain poor writing habits. They go backwards, not forwards.

Unfortunately, there are no clear solutions but the following tips, drawn from personal experience and the evidence into effective writing instruction, might help.

  • Subject knowledge. Make sure that children have time to build their background knowledge of a topic before they are expected to write in detail about it. Make sure that prior-reading, online videos and activities move slowly and sequentially towards extended writing. Ideally, online assessment and quizzes should be used to give you some idea whether children are ready to tackle a writing task or whether they require more study time first.
  • Crystal-clear expectations. It is useful to create success criteria for a task but avoid couching them in vague and subjective language. Also, avoid providing too many success criteria. Keep them very simple, very clear and avoid making them optional. Often teachers forget the importance of instructions and rules: be sure to provide a sentence or word count, be explicit about the kind of vocabulary you want to see and make clear any grammatical features you expect to see in their work.
  • Models and scaffolds. Where possible, provide models and scaffolds. These could, for example, include sentence starters or visual organisers that show students how to structure a whole text or part of a text. Vocabulary banks can provide support for relevant Tier 2 and Tier 3 language. Another option is to provide model exemplar work to make expectations clear. You could even ‘live-model’ the task by talking through the writing process step-by-step and verbalising your implicit thoughts as an expert writer.
  • Cognitive load. Writing forms the meeting point between a number of cognitive processes and places a great load on the working memory. To alleviate this, you should try to break down writing tasks. You can do this by separating out the planning, drafting and editing process and by limiting the quantity or focus of the writing (a single paragraph on one topic, for instance). External supports, such as writing scaffolds, are another excellent strategy. Finally, be careful not to bombard students with too many supporting resources – this too can increase the cognitive load of a task. It is a great idea to create resources that enable children to see the scaffolds as they are writing, otherwise they will have to split their attention between resources which again increases the load.

Finally, you should probably ask the question whether extended writing is always the best focus for remote teaching. Perhaps reading and consolidation of prior learning might be better options for your students.

Follow this link for a segment from a video I have set up for Year 9s to support their poetry analysis. It shows you how we use writing scaffolds and modelling in English at Durrington High School. I also recommend the EEF’s guidance report that covers literacy at secondary school for further ideas about effective writing instruction.

(During the time I spent writing this blog, my son was writing the play script for a ‘twisted’ fairy tale of his choice. We talked about how he should write the stage directions in the present tense, about how speech punctuation is not needed and about ideas for timings and settings. It is worth reflecting that despite our hard work and best intentions many children cannot access this sort of support at home.)


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