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Writing instruction: How it works, and why it matters

Writing instruction: How it works, and why it matters

5 min read
  • The science of learning

Writing instruction has perhaps never been so important. A report published earlier this year by the National Literacy Trust found that young people’s feelings about writing have reached an all-time low: only one in three children said that they enjoy writing, while only one in seven said that they write something daily in their free time.

It remains too early to hold forth about the long-term impact of remote learning and missed lessons during the pandemic, but strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the quality of children’s writing has been a major casualty as teachers have often been forced to prioritise content coverage over skill development. 

Writing is a complex, multi-faceted craft that assumes many different forms across the secondary curriculum. Teaching writing is no more straightforward, since it requires the skilful confluence of disciplinary knowledge and the development of pupils’ grasp of vocabulary, grammar, analysis, evaluation, planning, and argumentation, among countless other concepts. While the art and science of teaching writing effectively certainly can’t be distilled into a short article, there is a wealth of research conducted in real classrooms that points the way to maximising writing development at secondary level…

Meet the co-author

Robin Hardman

Robin Hardman is an Assistant Head and author of The Writing Game: 50 Evidence-Informed Writing Activities for GCSE and A-Levels. His book provides a practical toolkit for educators looking to enhance their teaching methods and help students excel in their writing technique.

1. Write more

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the more frequently pupils practise writing, the more likely they are to make progress.

This doesn’t mean that all writing activities are bound to be effective, but it is a useful rule of thumb for teachers to bear in mind. One of the greatest barriers to teenagers’ writing development is that teachers too often regard writing as a measurement of pupils’ progress, rather than as an essential component of the learning process.

Instead of asking themselves whether there is time to include writing activities in a sequence of lessons, teachers should consider how they can integrate writing into the process of communicating, consolidating, and reviewing the transmission of knowledge.

2. Write together

To quote Steve Graham and Karen Harris, two of the foremost scholars on evidence-based writing, teachers should fashion their classrooms into “writing communities”. This involves plenty of tasks requiring pupils to write together in pairs or small groups, which have consistently been found to benefit writing development, as well as frequent modelling by teachers.

It is a basic principle of effective pedagogy that pupils should be in no doubt as to what excellence entails, and research suggests that pupils are more likely to follow advice on writing when it comes from someone who they perceive as an expert writer.

This doesn’t mean that teachers need to be digging up quotations from J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis. Instead, we should be gradually building pupils’ confidence about our expertise. While this may sit uncomfortably with teachers who either don’t trust their own writing skills or who are too modest to parade them, it is incumbent on us to demystify and elucidate the processes that have enabled us to excel in our subjects.

Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

3. Scaffold and fade

Scaffolding and fading have attracted much (justified) attention in recent years. The concepts apply just as well to writing skill development as they do to any other aspect of learning.

As this study shows, teachers should consciously support pupils to execute the most complex skills – through assistance such as sentence frames and acronyms for remembering the components of an effective introduction or conclusion – and then gradually fade their guidance as pupils’ competence and confidence develops. Once higher-attaining pupils begin to master scaffolded skills, teachers should consider imposing constraints – like banning common sentence constructions – to maximise the level of challenge and continue the process of skill development.

4. Effective feedback

Effective writing instruction is heavily dependent on the quality of feedback that pupils receive. We need to challenge the traditional model – still incredibly popular among GCSE and A Level teachers – of teaching an entire topic without any opportunities for writing practice, then setting an essay that tests pupils’ knowledge of the topic they’ve just studied, before providing feedback that focuses on their performance in that task alone.

Instead, feedback should be offered throughout a unit of study, which is much easier if teachers weave low stakes writing practice into their schemes of work as discussed above. All feedback should focus on appraising effort and progress towards clearly defined goals, rather than commenting on pupils’ performance or reflecting teachers’ perceptions of their writing ability. As ever, it’s wise to follow Dylan Wiliam’s timeless maxim that “feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor”.

5. Encourage self-reflection and -regulation

As part of this process of ensuring that learners engage with, and act upon, teachers’ feedback, research suggests that they should be expected to undertake frequent goal setting.

These goals should then form the basis of teachers’ feedback, and they should be reviewed regularly to ensure that they are both sufficiently challenging and realistic. Strategies such as self-assessment, re-drafting, peer-assessment, and teaching planning techniques have also proven to be effective.

6. Vocabulary

If the techniques above can help to provide the foundations and materials for building excellent writing, then vocabulary acts as the cement that holds the other components together. Put simply, it is impossible to write well without possessing a broad range of word choices. Although sentence frames can help to guide learners at first, teachers will serve their pupils’ long-term interests far more effectively by ensuring that high-level vocabulary (including terms that are specific to their discipline and those that possess wider utility) is frequently modelled, explained, and expected.

7. Change mindsets

If we are to succeed in making writing instruction more effective in our schools in colleges, we need to oversee several attitudinal shifts. First, we need to emphasise that the ability to write well is neither innate nor fixed, but a skill that is accessible to all who are willing to devote time, attention, and effort to practising it. An essential element of this mindset is that teachers need to regard themselves as writers. This involves making a commitment to develop their own writing capabilities as well as their pupils’. Finally, we need to make the case for writing not merely as a mode of assessment, but as a medium of self-expression, empathy, and enjoyment.

Thank you to Robin Hardman for writing this blog. Robin is Head of Politics at a school in South West London and author of The Writing Game: 50 Evidence-Informed Writing Activities for GCSE and A Level, which was published by John Catt in December 2021.