Friday 14 March 2014

Can I be that little bit better at.....improving the quality of students writing in my lessons?

Last month I wrote a guest blog post for Subject Support (which can be found here).  It looked at ways that as a PE teacher I can improve the quality of students written work in theory lessons.  Since then I have had a number of very unrelated conversations about this topic and worked with a number of colleagues on this same problem.  Although I am not a specialist in this field, I am still a huge advocate that I have as much of a duty to develop students reading, writing and general literacy skills as any other colleague.  Simply because I am a PE teacher should not be an excuse or reason why I should see this as the work of other departments (more often than not the English Department).  I feel it unfair that I should feel the benefit of their hard work and do nothing with my students to help support, reinforce or move students competence in this skill forward.  At our school we have a number of whole school literacy strategies that, as individual teachers or departments, we should be following to help develop students literacy.  This is a positive set of strategies and ones which are designed to raise standards.  They work and provide clarity for staff and students.  There is the worry though within my own thoughts that if we are not careful, ensuring we are incorporating such strategies, we make the process a bit of a 'bolt on'.

For a long time (since the Literacy in PE project found here) I have always thought that improving the standards of literacy within students should be something at the heart of teaching.  As a colleague of mine once said (and undoubtedly borrowed from elsewhere), "We are all teachers of English".  And he is right!  Almost everything I do in my theory lessons involves students either verbalising their ideas in a coherent manner or providing a written response to a task, question, problem or challenge.  Using sources, articles and various texts of varying complexities and varying length is also part and parcel of what I do.  With this much need for students to clearly communicate or interpret literature, I have ample opportunity to drive the standards of literacy forward within my teaching without the need to run for a whole school writing mat or PEED poster.  Now there are clearly limits to my expertise (as you will probably spot in the various grammar mistakes in this post!).  I am not even on the same scale as English teachers or literacy coordinators.  What I am able to do though is make how I design my lessons have a coherent message that literacy, particularly written responses, is of huge importance and something that I will strive my hardest to develop over time.  So with this specific focus in mind, can I be that little bit better at developing the quality of students writing in my lessons?  Hopefully the following ways might just be the first step in doing that.

Demonstrating great writing

Articles and texts

I am a huge fan of introducing various depths of reading in lesson.  I find the traditional use of texts books a great starting point for information, but ultimately find them limiting on what they offer in terms a broader spectrum of writing.  As a PE teacher I actively seek out various newspaper/media articles, scientific articles, extracts from books or even the odd research paper.  The amount of literature that is freely available for my subject is extremely vast and very rewarding.  Using, for instance, a scientific paper explaining how the use of carbon fibre as a material for making track bikes in cycling is a much richer source of information than using the generic text book.  The use of specific or key terminology is much more beneficial and models a much higher level of academic writing which I ultimately hope my students can aspire to reproduce.  As a teacher it is vital that students are exposed to such vocabulary so that they can then develop confidence in using them in the future.  They also contextualise the content that I am delivering and allow students to make meaning of some very technical information.  Articles are a fantastic way to stimulate discussion with students and can be unpicked very easily with the class.  Looking at how sentence structure and various tones are used can be as important to highlight with students as the content itself.  Choosing the correct text for students is incredibly important though.  Using tools such as the Google Reading Level Filter (see here) can help select user friendly material that is pitched at the various reading levels.  Taking the time to search, read and share such materials is excellent time well spent and has the potential to reward students writing immensely.  

Examples of excellence

If you have never read Ron Berger's 'An ethic of excellence' I would urge you to do so.  The book is an absolute gem of a read and clearly explains various steps to help develop the quality of students work.  Throughout the book Ron talks about his use of exemplar material with his current students.  The vast majority of this work is produced by students from earlier years.  The remaining materials are sourced from the field of work in which his class are studying (an actual scientific paper if his students are producing work within a science topic).  Ron uses these high quality exemplars as examples of excellence.  He uses them for many reasons but the one that resonates with me the most is how he uses them to help his students develop their writing.  Analysing these excellent pieces of work with his class allows them to be opened up to a world of high quality writing.  By sharing them with his class he is exposing them to a level of literacy and a variety of styles that they might not have ever seen before.  It's this level of inspiration that can help provide clarity for students when embarking on extended writing tasks.  The process of sourcing these examples is relatively easy and one that I encourage all of us to do.  Scan your students books and pick out brilliant pieces of work.  Look through assessment tasks and find high quality answers.  Revisit homework's or projects from previous years and pick out the best that students have submitted.  If not, look to industry to find relevant exemplars which can be used with students and provide sufficient challenge which they can aspire to.  If we aren't sharing high quality writing, do students actually know what it looks like?


Using the various texts, examples of excellence or your own written responses, we can model particular styles of writing or structure that would help our students.  Modelling work allows our classes to visualise and understand the high standard of work that we expect.  It can give students that clear example of what we are aiming for.  Models also provide an opportunity for us to demonstrate excellent structure, vocabulary use, styles of writing and use of grammar (among other things).  As a teacher I aim to model work as much as possible.  Using the white board to project an example or simply sharing copies as handouts allows me to talk through what makes this particular pieces of writing high quality.  The exemplar can also be a great tool and allow students to discuss, analyse and even rewrite some of its sections.  The model itself then becomes 'live' and evolves.  Where it is applicable, I also use a camera (or visualiser) to quickly take photos of students work as it happens.  Displaying this on the screen with students allows me to show high quality work being produced by one of their peers.  Doug Lemov talks about a similar technique called 'Show call' which involves a teacher randomly selecting students work to model via a visualiser during lessons.  The process shows how work is achievable and increases the quality as any piece of work can be selected.  Finally, some of the best models I have seen have been those produced by teachers themselves.  I'll talk more about this later in the next paragraph.

...deconstructing examples....

Although modelling work can be an extremely effective tool, it can also be seen as a step too far for a number of our students.  Occasionally students see these models and fear that this level of work is unobtainable.  They worry that the progression from their own style to this is too big a jump.  This is where a teacher can use their skill to deconstruct it with students and scaffold the process of achieving writing of this level.  At the lesson planning phase think about the model you will be sharing.  What stages did the writer take to get it to this level?  How did they plan this piece of writing?  What key features enable the writer to produce work of this standard?  How would you go about trying to emulate this quality?  Why did they use terminology or vocabulary the way they did?  How big a step is it between your classes current writing the model exemplar?   The key is to look at the model through the eyes of a student you teach.  If the answers to the various questions above result in too many problems or too high a level of challenge, it may require you to rethink your model.  Once the model is suitably challenging, the process of deconstructing it is very helpful.  Show them the process of how writing of this level was achieved.  Break down various sections of the text and build them back up.  Construct examples with your class on the board using the various stages so students see how the process works in action.  These phases of a lesson can produce the biggest lightbulb moments.  If you are brave enough, answer the question yourself in lesson.  Gather students around and show them what your thought process and technique was to construct your opening sentence, or your second paragraph, or your conclusion......  The list of options is endless.  Having such a live demonstration unwinding right there in front of them is a perfect opportunity for developing standards.  The process after that is how to scaffold.

...and scaffolding work

In my eyes, scaffolding should be used up unto the point where the writer is ready to be set free.  The use of writing frames, PEED, success criteria and other techniques are a great to get the process initiated.  When scaffolding how to answer long answer questions (8 marks) in my lesson, I will frequently use IDEA as a way to structure their writing.  The process, supported by modelling and deconstructing examples, allows students to begin their writing.  It allows them to have a plan and thought process behind how they tackle the answer.  It also encourages students to think and plan in a way that they might not have initially thought of.  In a cognitive science role, it minimises cognitive overload and allows students to map out their thinking.  It makes the initial process clear.  The goal though is not to have the scaffold left on forever.  Nor is it to make the process of writing 'easy'.  My aim is to allow students to become competent enough before finally releasing them to create writing that is fluent, academic and rich in character.

Developing specific terminology

Many of the students that I teach in GCSE PE can clearly verbalise what they are thinking. The detail in their answers and explanation of meaning is really quite good when spoken to me.  They may waffle on or taper off but their ideas are generally sound.  Unfortunately a number of students I work with find it difficult to get this on paper in a coherent manner.  They struggle to produce academic writing and frequently use generic language or write how they speak.  As a GCSE subject we need to work hard with students to develop their vocabulary and use of specific terminology.  We then need to introduce them to a breadth of subject specific words that help develop the strength of their writing.  Apart from the various use of texts and modelling outlined above, how can I begin to do this?

Planning to introduce key terms with meanings throughout lessons or scheme

Some students have a limited range of vocabulary compared to peers and this gap can continue to grow throughout life.  Specifically identifying key words and technical terminology that is not only shared but explained and then used in context can be a simple way to increase the range of word use.  In our department we identify key vocabulary throughout the course and ensure that these are shared with students.

Keeping a glossary of terminology 

A simple idea in which a spare few pages at the back of an exercise book can be transformed into glossary of key words.  The key though is to ensure meaning is understood.  Too many times I have seen students misinterpret a word and confuse its meaning in written responses.  Once this glossary is populated, we then need to ensure students use them.

Focusing on these key words

Sharing them and even getting students to write new vocabulary in a glossary or similar format is fine.  As the teacher we need to not think of that as a job done but more importantly design opportunities for students to focus on using key words.  This can come in the form of specifying words that ‘must be included in your sentences’ or even as simple as underlining/highlight these new words in use.  The more frequently that students use this academic vocabulary the better.  The aim is for this level of language to become habit and for students to use it wherever suitable to support their written work.

Expanding general vocabulary 

Bringing in new subject specific terminology is high on most teachers’ minds (especially in subjects like PE or Science) but do we sometimes focus on this subject specific element and forget standard vocabulary?  Working with students to create ‘alternate words’ or synonyms for general language is very important and should be encouraged by us all.  Making lists that students can select from can be a great way to expand their range of vocabulary.  Simple things such as instead of using a word like ‘happened’, students select from a list including ‘transpired, occurred, ensued, materialised’.  Many teachers have shared examples using paint colour cards or 'juicy words' which students are encouraged to use.

Vocabulary Upgrade 

A great idea borrowed from @TeacherTweaks where students check their work before submission and look to upgrade the depth of vocabulary they have used.  A teacher may prompt students to improve 5 words used in a particular piece of writing.  Students may look to replace generic words with specific terminology or even expand general vocabulary as explained above.  The process can also be done in pairs or even through a wider forum such as gallery critique.

Redundant words

When working with journalists last year on a PE project, they were excellent at informing students to focus on 'redundant words'.  In their industry column inch space is extremely valuable.  When going through the editing phase, journalists will cut out words that simply aren't needed.  Many of these are common words such as 'the' or 'that' or 'and'.  Getting students to work similarly when writing is a great way to cut out the random waffling that occasionally takes pace.  After students have written out their answers/essays, have them re-read it and spot opportunities to take the word count down.  Can they restructure a long sentence into something move succinct by removing redundant words and reordering the order? 

Constructing sentences

Once students have begun to develop their vocabulary it is essential that they can use them in a coherent manner.  Constructing sentences for some can be a challenge in itself.  Our subject requires students to explain their understanding of specific topics very clearly. It also requires them to support their understanding with application and meaning.  We also have numerous definitions and key words that are required to be defined before contextualised within a sporting example.  Before the level of modelling and deconstructing working examples, are there any methods I can use to get students to begin to formulate high quality sentences?

Sentence starters – with a difference!

For a while now I have been very adverse to sentence starters.  I always felt the ‘generic’ ones that were shared around were too flat and uninspiring.  Essentially they provide a starting point for developing written responses, but I always felt they lacked challenge or freedom to be creative.  Do they really make students think about what they are writing?  Doug Lemov completely reversed my thinking with his post 'At First Glance: A Sentence Starter Adds Unexpected Rigor to Writing'.  In the post, Doug explains that taking the time to create challenging yet thought provoking sentence starters such as 'At first glance....' is a simple but powerful tool.  The unusual three word prompt, chosen specifically to challenge students, allowed them to articulate some very high responses.  What is the topic you are covering?  What response do you want students to write?  Can you create an interesting three word starter?

Four part process– defining words and creating beautiful sentences

Getting students to define and then craft beautiful sentences is a great skill.  There are a number of fantastic methods to help students structure and support students in the process.  One way that I have found incredibly effective is the four part process borrowed from Lee Donaghy (who in turn borrowed it from Helen Handford).  The process is excellent for defining a key term, idea or piece of terminology.  It forces students to take this point and create a structured sentence from it, incorporating the definition and meaning.  Students pick out the information being defined.  They then select a verb or process that will help link it to the definition.  The important element of the meaning is then added so that a full sentence can be read across the framework.  The process isn’t just finished there though.  The teacher models how to redraft it, constantly refining it so that the sentence becomes more academic in nature.  The process of co-planning and coaching the students helps them understand the requirements needed to build this definition into a response of very high quality.

Live writing

As I mentioned earlier, this involves the process of the teacher taking examples of writing as it happens in the lesson.  This can come from either students or from the teacher.  As students begin to compose their sentences, the teacher can take examples of these and share them with the rest of the class.  Through discussion, analysis and feedback, the sentence can be restructured and improved in front of the class.  The process involves all students via the co-construction of new writing.  It also clearly demonstrates the process of writing excellent sentences.

Excellent sentences

Share examples of sentences that answer a particular question or essay title.  Ask students (either individually or in pairs/groups) to rework these sentences until they are refined enough to become high quality.  Discuss the process of the redrafting and get students to explain why they changed the various components that they did.  The teacher could specify exactly what the students should focus on whilst reworking them (use of key terminology, redundant words etc) or simply allow them the freedom to adapt them independently.

Extended writing

There has become an increasing need for students within GCSE PE to produce extended writing.  The various 8 mark questions within the AQA paper require students to pool together a variety of topics or pieces of information and relate them back to a scenario character.  This requirement happens twice within the exam and requires a lot of thought from students.  Even if this wasn't the case, helping students develop their extended writing is such an important skill to learn.  As non specialists, are there ways in which we can support and teach students how to write longer pieces of work?

Make extended writing the norm

Our GCSE curriculum model has a strong core literacy strand.  As the terms go on, we ask our students to develop their writing piece by piece.  When they get into the third unit we ask focus on exposing our students to as many opportunities for writing longer pieces as possible.  The use of 6-8 mark questions within lessons or even open ended driving questions allows us to create opportunities for focused writing to take place.  The use of higher mark questions can also be an excellent tool for driving content and checking student understanding.

I.D.E.A – Writing longer responses

In the past, many of the students who answered long answer questions in our subject simply listed 6-8 points and believed this sufficient.  The requirements of the exam actually asks students to refine their ideas into a few points and explain them in detail.  It involves students seeing connections between various topics and comparing, analysing, evaluating and explaining relationships between them.  Writing frames can be incredibly beneficial to help structure this process.  Many people are familiar with PEED, but we use IDEA instead.  The process asks students to following the following steps:

I – Identify – The piece of information or aspect that they would like to talk about.
D – Define/Describe – State the definition or describe the thing you are focusing on.
E - Explain – In your own words, demonstrate that you understand the meaning.
A – Apply - Relate it to an example or put it into context.

Students plan out their written response using the framework as a guide.  When you combine the four elements, it produces the basis of a well thought out paragraph.  For longer answer questions (like the AQA GCSE PE 8 mark questions), this process can be repeated a number of times to explore different points. 
It is important to stress though that IDEA is the beginning of developing improved written responses.  After students have sufficient skill in various techniques, the framework should be removed to allow students more creative freedom in their writing.

So where now?

This is just the beginning and hopefully a step away from having literacy as a bolt on to our subject.  What we feel is that literacy is now a core component of our subject and the need for students to write has become common place.  We are still a million miles off and developing our own understanding of writing is high up on our priorities.  There are still elements of grammar, sentence structures and advanced things like nominalisation which are well above my understanding.  They are however areas that we are working hard to develop in order to make the way we support our students writing that little bit better.

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