How can we help improve students’ writing?
How many times have you felt frustrated when students’ writing does not make sense or is over-simplified? I know this has certainly been an issue for many of my students either because they do not read widely or have English as an Additional Language.
Writing is highly complex and involves a multitude of skills we may take for granted.
5 Ways To Improve Writing
In The Writing Revolution, they advocate ‘deliberate practice’ where writing is demystified through ‘exercises that specifically target skills…in a gradual step-by-step process’.
Here are my top five strategies for improving writing.
1. Writing and sentence crafting
I ask students to turn simple topic sentences into complex ones. This uses more complex thinking and ideas.
I might ask them to start with a noun appositive or present participle verb. For example,
Shakespeare presents power as held by men becomes….
Mirroring the patriarchal society in which he lived, Shakespeare presents power as held by men.
Egeus prioritises his reputation above his daughters happiness becomes…..
A father concerned only with wielding power over his daughter, Egeus prioritises his reputation over Hermia’s happiness.
Tom Needham writes in detail about how teaching phrases can transform writing.
Sentence expansion activities are also transformative in terms of students’ thinking and writing. I use The Writing Revolution’s and/but/so idea in memory platform activities to test students’ memory and understanding when revising texts.
2. Writing and live modelling
Talking students through your thought-processes when building a piece of writing block-by-block is important.
They can follow your reasons for selecting a particular word and employing a complex sentence structure. It helps them see how you join sentence X and Y together, use connectives and punctuation.
It really is powerful for them to see the ‘expert at work’. I often follow this with students working in pairs, one writing while verbalising their own thought process while the other coaches, asking questions like:
- ‘Could you select a synonym for this less-sophisticated verb?
- How could you embed this quote?
- Could you make this sentence complex?’
3. Writing and structure
The Writing Revolution includes a lot of helpful strategies for teaching students to structure their writing effectively.
My favourites to use in the classroom are planning paragraphs by writing a topic sentence (see sentence crafting above), writing a concluding sentence that links back to their topic sentence and then planning 3-4 points they will include in their paragraph before putting them in a logical order.
Many students are unsure how to structure texts which is why these strategies avoid: ‘I’m finished’ or ‘I don’t know what to write next’!
4. Writing and criteria
David Didau has done a lot of work around scaffolding writing through his Slow Writing technique.
In a similar vein, I give students criteria to include when answering a question to encourage sophistication and a higher level of thinking.
For example, Why does Priestley characterise Mr Birling as arrogant and foolish? Include the following:
- the phrase ‘Because Priestley advocates socialism,…’,
- the technique dramatic irony
- the quote ‘portentous;
- the verb ‘ridicule’
- the verb ‘compel’
- a colon to introduce Priestley’s political stance
For example, Because Priestley advocates socialism, he ridicules the ‘portentous’ Mr Birling as arrogant and foolish through dramatic irony which compels a 1945 audience to support his political message: social equality is essential if we are to have peace for future generations.
Providing criteria ensures students think carefully about their sentence crafting including punctuation and vocabulary.
5. Writing and feedback
I use Rebecca Foster’s excellent feedback sheets for this.
We use MAD (Make a Difference) Time to go through SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) and errors again through live modelling of correct and incorrect uses along with spelling strategies and questioning.
Students are given targets in the form of numbers which we read through and discuss, ensuring they understand both what their target is and the steps needed to address it in their redrafting time.
There is also a praise box where we ‘zoom in’ on students’ writing and analyse as a class what makes it effective. Students are encouraged to ‘magpie‘ words, phrases or entire sentences particularly if it links to their personal target.
Ultimately, we live by the mantra, ‘if it’s not perfect, it’s not finished’, breeding a culture of constant redrafting and aiming for excellence through ‘sweating the small stuff’!