This is an extract from the introduction to Practical Writing Strategies. PWS is written by myself and Benjamin White, and will be published by Amba Press later this year.
What is writing?
When Leon wrote Practical Reading Strategies, he started with a seemingly simple question: what is reading? The question came from a Community of Practice run by the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE) and was used to explore what goes on ‘behind the eyes’ when students read. It quickly became apparent that the question was anything but simple.
When students read, any number of things might be going on: from a slow and methodical processing of individual words to full technicolour moving pictures in the imagination. PRS explored the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of reading, and so it makes sense to begin this second book in the same place.
Reading draws on contextual cues, language knowledge and memories (Gee, 2004). Writing does all this, plus the added cognitive effort of focused attention, the selection of words and phrases, and the motor skills of actually putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) (Hermansson & Lindgren, 2019). Writing is a highly demanding act, and not something to be taken lightly.
And yet in schools we often try to shortcut the complex processes involved in writing in a race to get to the product – the written outcome itself. Our education system – driven along by standardised assessments and high stakes testing – seems to demand that we hurry along and get to ‘the point’. Rather than carefully stepping through the required stages of writing – including reading and planning, generating ideas, drafting, refining and editing – students are often placed in the unfortunate position of having to write only by imitation. Formulaic essay structures, which should only be used as scaffolds, become the ultimate ends, and writing is reduced from a process to a product.
This is by no means the fault of teachers. In ‘content-heavy’ subjects, such as the Sciences and Humanities, examination pressures dictate that writing should be taught as a means to an end. Even in the English classroom the pressures of senior secondary assessment dominate the writing landscape, with essay structures reverberating down from Year 12 through to the junior levels.
But it doesn’t have to happen this way. Writing is a complex process, and it should be treated with the time, care and attention it deserves. “Learning the craft of writing… enables writers to find their own ‘voice’”, and it is a slow and considered process (Carey et al, 2022, p36). Practical Writing Strategies, like the reading book that preceded it, encourages teachers to slow down, cut out content to focus on skills and lead students gently through the complex process of writing.
Shifting the focus
Our writing cycle was developed over years of trial and error. While we were focused on integrating the Reading Strategies into our curriculum, we deliberately shelved writing, making the controversial decision to greatly reduce the amount of time spent explicitly teaching writing. We predicted a temporary drop in our NAPLAN writing results, but this didn’t play out. Our 2021 results – even after COVID-19 and remote learning – were marginally higher. We saw a dip in 2022 after the return to ‘COVID-normal’ saw us facing inconsistent staff and student absences. As a result, we’ll never really know the full impact of shifting our focus away from writing based on Year 7 and 9 NAPLAN results.
Then, something surprised us. During the COVID years we started to get the best Victorian Certificate of Education results we had seen. In Victoria, Year 12 students must complete at least one of the English studies. For us, roughly 80% of our students complete VCE English. In 2020 and 2021, we saw our best results in more than a decade, as measured by students in the high 30s and 40-plus scores, and also by students in the lower ranges drawing closer to the state average.
So while the shift in focus away from writing and towards reading had no clear impact on NAPLAN, it seemed to have had a significant impact on our senior results. Comparing the kinds of essays students were writing in 2017 to those they write now, it’s easy to see why. Focusing on close reading, discussing texts and prioritising student voice has resulted in writing that is much more vibrant and personal. Practical Reading Strategies explains how we got there.
With the Reading Strategies safely tucked under our belts, we started to shift our attention back to writing. Towards the end of 2020, we began to develop and refine a process of writing that was backed up by the Reading Strategies. As a result, we developed our Writing Cycle.
When you start exploring the research around teaching writing, you’ll inevitably come across debates about the various merits and faults of process writing, product writing and genre writing. It is worth exploring each of these methods.
Process, product or genre?
Process writing, as the name suggests, teaches writing as a process from ideas, through drafting, to editing and submission. Instruction is broken into clear stages, and typically eschews models or conventions in favour of continuous feedback and revision.
Product writing and genre writing
Product writing was the preeminent model of writing instruction in the UK, US and Australia until the 1960s and 1970s, after which it was largely supplanted by process writing. It begins with a model text, teaches the language and formal conventions, scaffolds practice of the skills, and directs students to create an original text using the conventions and techniques derived from the model. Genre writing builds on the product model, with more of a focus on the generic conventions. In genre writing, the language techniques highlighted by the product writing approach are grounded in the conventions of the genre.
We believe there is a false dichotomy between process and product – students need to be taught via both approaches. A focus on product writing can lead to decontextualised instruction, for example, of grammar or language techniques. On the other hand, research has pointed to evidence that process writing may disadvantage struggling writers (AERO, 2022, p14).
The Writing Cycle incorporates elements of both methods of instruction. Like process writing, it follows a clear structure to support students throughout the creation of their texts. Like product and genre writing, we use models (mentor texts) and explicit instruction of skills, which are contextualised by the texts they study in class.
Overview of the Writing Cycle
In the creation of the Writing Cycle we are indebted to several other authors and educators who have produced amazing work on writing as a process (for example, see Moon, 2011; Derewianka, 2015).
We developed the Cycle alongside the Reading Strategies, always coming from a position of reading first, writing later. Both authors of this text write regularly – Ben has written many texts for English teachers, and Leon writes both nonfiction and fiction. We know that writers read voraciously and that what we read colours our writing. But we also know that this is not the case for many of our students. The Writing Cycle needed to address the fact that many students are starting from a disadvantaged position when it comes to putting their ideas down on paper or screen.
That’s why the actual writing doesn’t begin until somewhere between the third and fourth stages of the cycle, when students begin to draft. Prior to that, students engage in a lot of discussion, brainstorming, ideas generation and reading of other authors’ texts.
Another important aspect was our understanding that the writing is never really ‘finished’. We’ve both had experiences where the editor’s deadline is the only thing stopping the writing from being in a state of eternal revision – folders cluttered with files called things like Chapter1_Final_Draft_v1..2.4.7a… As writers, we iterate through the stages, starting by identifying the purpose and audience, then coming up with some ideas, drafting, collaborating with peers and editors, and then reviewing the text to make sure it really does fit the purpose before moving through the cycle again. Eventually, the text reaches a point where it is fit for submission (or the deadline passes and the editors become agitated).
The Writing Cycle maps out these stages of the process, avoiding the temptation typical to education to skip straight from purpose (you need to write an essay) to publication (please submit the essay).
The Writing Cycle
This includes the reason for writing, the audience, the context and the motivation. Students, like any other writers, need more than just, ‘because it is the required assessment outcome’. A clear purpose sets the tone for the rest of the writing.
In the exploration stage, students play with texts, exploring multiple models of quality writing in order to get a feel for how other authors have approached similar purposes and audiences. This may include discussions on form, themes, genre or techniques.
Writers generate ideas – brainstorming, discussions and collaboration encourages students to experiment and test ideas. In this stage, students might begin working on drafts.
All students write differently and have different needs. In this stage, students identify specific skills to focus on, which will support their writing. This might include work on vocabulary, technique, structure and so on.
Writing is rarely done in a bubble. Professional authors often rely on beta readers, editors, and friends and family for much-needed advice and support. Students work together in writing groups and with teachers to refine their ideas.
Publication might be the end of a single cycle, or a trigger to go back to purpose and review. Students may decide to explore further texts at this point or refine their ideas and skills. When the text is ready for submission, it will be published in the appropriate form.
Stay tuned for more information from the book. To stay up to date on the publication of Practical Writing Strategies, join the mailing list: