Five Tips to Support Students’ Writing

It is probable that we have all experienced the frustration of having students who can engage confidently and accurately in class discussion but then falter dramatically when it comes to writing anything down. Although the reason for this contrast might feel like a complete mystery, there are some possibilities that help to shed a light on what might be going on.

Getting students to move from oral explanation of their ideas to written pieces can be tricky. Writing is challenging because it requires students to combine three processes and coordinate them all at once, and if this is not taught carefully the cognitive demands can be overwhelming.  Firstly, students must deal with the mechanics of writing, or in other words transcription skills such as handwriting, typing and spelling. Secondly, students have to generate a text by gathering ideas and information and then shaping these into words, sentences and structured pieces. Finally, students must also make great use of their executive function in order to plan, edit and revise their writing, all whilst staying motivated and on task. This is no small feat!

The key thing to remember here is that writing is a process, not a single event. Consequently, breaking down the steps of that process, including retracing some steps when needed, is the most likely way to get students’ words flowing on the page. Here are five strategies to try in your classroom that can support the journey.

1. Intervene early with poor handwriting or typing

Writing is physical as well as intellectual, and fluent handwriting or typing is essential in avoiding cognitive overload. If handwriting or typing is effortful then students are less able to concentrate on what they are writing about. Teachers can help by monitoring students’ letter formation and pen grip to ensure it leads to greater fluency (cursive handwriting) or perhaps providing touch-typing courses where appropriate.

2. Spelling

As with handwriting and typing, spelling is a key transcription skill. The greater automaticity a student has with spelling, the more capacity they have to focus on other areas of the writing process. There is no evidence to support a specific method for teaching spelling, but what evidence there is suggests that teaching spelling works best when the new words are related to the current content being taught and students practise these spellings on multiple occasions. A mixed-method approach that incorporates phonological (sounds in words), orthographical (word recognition) and morphological (word parts) approaches is also likely to work best.

3. Teach writing as a process, not a single event

Writing comprises very specific steps:

  • planning
  • drafting
  • revising
  • editing, and
  • publishing.

Each step requires explicit modelling, scaffolding and plenty of practice. Students will learn the steps at different rates and some steps may well need to be repeated for individuals. Each step will also need to be taught within the disciplinary context of the writing: students will have to plan how to write a science report using a different model to how they plan a history essay, so teacher subject knowledge is key. Finally, having a specific audience in mind can help keep students motivated at all stages of this writing journey, especially if the writing is published at the end. Easy ways to ‘publish’ students’ writing include sending it home to parents/guardians, displays and class anthologies.

4. Combine reading with writing

Part of text generation involves prewriting activities that supports students’ development of the knowledge they need to write a text, including the background knowledge, vocabulary and the features and conventions of different genres. One way to achieve the latter is to combine reading and writing. As students read an authentic disciplinary text, they can use annotations to explore its key features, for example underlining the types of evidence being used in a science report. Likewise, students can create checklists, for example whilst reading a geography text they can write a list of the cause and effect phrases they encounter to use later in their own writing.

5. Release responsibility gradually

Lastly, as with all pedagogy, it is crucial to get the balance right between explicit modelling of the writing steps and asking students to work independently so that you can assess and give feedback. The EEF advocates a seven-step strategy to support this process, which should be repeated with each step identified in point 3 above:

  1. Activate prior knowledge
  2. Explicit strategy instruction.
  3. Modelling of learned strategy.
  4. Memorisation of strategy.
  5. Guided practice.
  6. Independent practice.
  7. Structured reflection.

This blog is based on the EEF guidance reports on literacy, which can be found here for further reading.

Fran Haynes

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