This is the final post in a series which goes deeper into the new VCE English and EAL Crafting Texts outcome. Each post includes some discussion of the Area of Study along with practical lesson ideas. Even if you’re not a VCE English teacher, you’ll find this post useful if you use mentor or model texts when teaching fiction and nonfiction writing.
The first three posts in this series have covered the mentor texts, ideas, and assessment of Crafting Texts. In this final post I’m going off in a slightly different direction to discuss the impact that Crafting Texts will (hopefully) have on the secondary English curriculum from Years 7 to 10.
Bringing Crafting Texts into the Junior and Middle School
As I’ve written elsewhere, Crafting Texts is an opportunity to finally explore forms other than the analytical response in senior English. For many years, the three styles of response in the Year 12 examination have dominated the English curriculum: analytical response, comparative (analytical) response, and analysis of persuasive language.
Because of the misconception that “we have to teach to the exam”, this has led many schools to all but dispense with creative writing. Even the creative assessment task in the VCE has been sidelined because it is not part of the exam.
With Crafting Texts we have an opportunity to balance out the text types and give creative writing – both in fiction and nonfiction – the time and space it deserves in the curriculum.
What not to do
The new study design should also give us a moment’s pause to think about what not to do. In the previous post on assessment I wrote about why teaching to the exam is bad practice. Under the misguided assumption that “VCAA wants a certain type of essay”, schools regularly fall into the following traps:
- Teaching essay writing in Year 7
- Conducting all writing assessment under exam conditions
- Teaching essay writing through formulaic structures like TEEL
- Teaching reading (analysis) and writing at the same time
- Assessing understanding of text through writing
In this post, I’ll explore each of these common English missteps and why they should be avoided, as well as offering some advice on what to do instead.
Year 7s don’t need essays
This first point is probably the least contentious. Luckily for our youngest secondary students, many schools don’t require Year 7s to write complete essays. On the other hand, enough do that it’s worth exploring.
There are a few factors at play when schools have Year 7 students writing essays. The most often cited is NAPLAN, particularly the persuasive response. The text structure criterion (worth four marks) requires students to demonstrate:
The organisation of the structural components of a persuasive text (introduction, body and conclusion) into an appropriate and effective text structureNAPLAN Writing Test Criteria
At some point this criterion has become conflated with both the “5 paragraph essay” and TEEL, which I’ll discuss later.
There is plenty of criticism out there pointing to the fact that NAPLAN encourages poor quality writing. As well as missing the mark on quality, the NAPLAN writing test doesn’t even align with the Australian Curriculum for English, which requires no such structure at Year 7. Students at this level must demonstrate an understanding of how texts increase in complexity, and the basics of paragraphing – not the construction of an entire essay response.
The elaboration explains this as follows. Students at Year 7 can demonstrate their structural understanding through:
writing structured paragraphs for use in a range of academic settings such as paragraph responses, reports and presentationsAustralian Curriculum for English v8.4
Year 7s don’t need to write essays: they need to understand how sentences and paragraphs convey ideas. More importantly, they need to understand how to develop those ideas in the first place.
Exams don’t teach writing
More prevalent than Year 7 essays is a tendency to hold as many written assignments as possible under timed exam conditions. I’m yet to see any evidence that this improves results. Subjecting Year 7s to exam-style essays because “that’s what they do in Year 12” is the same as teaching a 2 year old to read because “they’ll have to do it in Grade 1”.
When we assess writing under exam conditions we’re not assessing the ability to write: we’re assessing the ability to memorise, regurgitate, fill in the blanks, and perform to “the criteria”. None of this is writing. It distracts us from the fact that writing is a slow, methodical process that involves ideas, drafting, editing, and revision.
TEEL is a lie we tell ourselves
Having written, presented, and run online courses about TEEL for many years, I’m confident that I’ve heard every possible defence for the Topic – Evidence – Explanation – Link paragraph structure. The most common is, “my students need TEEL or they wouldn’t have anything to write”. This stance is unfair to students, and does nothing to improve either their joy of writing or their results. If a student “doesn’t have anything to write” it means one of several things: they haven’t read or understood the text; they didn’t enjoy the text; they couldn’t find a way to connect with the text; they have a language issue which prevents them from responding to the text.
Most of the above reasons are addressable by changing teaching methods. The final is only addressable through consistent, individual work and sometimes intervention. None of them are solved by TEEL.
The next most common excuse for TEEL is that “the examiners want TEEL”. They don’t. They say year after year that they don’t. They say it at assessor’s briefings. In examination reports. At Meet the Assessor PDs. TEEL gets senior students 5s and 6s, at best. A student writing a 10/10 essay is not doing so through TEEL.
TEEL is a lie we tell ourselves: it’s a crutch. I’ve been there. Faced with two dozen blank-faced students and only 7 weeks to teach a chunky classic, it seems as though a structure like TEEL is the only way to get any evidence down on paper. But just because it’s expedient doesn’t mean it’s particularly good. We need to break away from TEEL and similar formulaic structures if we want our students to become successful writers.
Teaching reading ≠ teaching writing
Another mistake we make all too often is to bundle together the teaching of reading and writing, meaning that there isn’t enough time to do justice to either. Many text-study units in English culminate in an essay. This means that we are trying to analyse a text, teach close reading and analysis, and teach essay structure, academic style, and the conventions of essays all in one.
We need to start thinking differently about how we structure our units of work. This leads nicely on to the final point.
If you want to assess writing, assess writing
The following is taken from our new book, Practical Writing Strategies, which is out now from Amba Press:
If you’re looking for knowledge, assess for knowledge
If the purpose is to ascertain what a student knows about a text, or an historical event, or a scientific process, then assess the knowledge and only the knowledge. If the most appropriate way to do that is in writing, then consider whether there is a difference between an essay, or a list of dot-points, or even a transcript of a conversation or a copy of an electronic chat. Ask the question: does the quality of the writing matter if we are assessing the knowledge learned?
If you’re looking for writing, assess the writing
If the purpose of the writing is to establish whether the student can write, then only assess the writing. For example, if the intent is to assess a student’s ability to construct a persuasive argument, then the content of the argument is irrelevant. If the purpose is to write an essay about a text, then the text they choose to write on is equally unimportant. Use the purpose from the writing cycle to develop the criteria for the writing. Use the mentor texts from the exploration stage to develop an understanding of how the writer’s will achieve the final product. Ask yourself: if the quality of the writing matters, does it matter what the student is writing about?Practical Writing Strategies (2023)
Avoiding the traps
Crafting Texts has given us an opportunity to avoid some of those common traps. First of all, there’s an acknowledgement that analytical writing isn’t the only form of writing students should be concerned with.
Secondly, Crafting Texts practically mandates that we slow down and value the entire process of writing, including ideas, drafting, and editing.
We also don’t have to treat Crafting Texts as the exact model for teaching creative writing in the junior and middle years – there’s no need to create a “mini-VCE” in Y7-10. There is plenty of scope in the Victorian Curriculum for teaching a variety of forms and styles of writing.
Practical Strategies for Crafting Texts in 7-10
Here are suggestions which can be used in the 7-10 Curriculum which point towards Crafting Texts without replicating the entire VCE unit.
- Mentor Text Study: In any unit (persuasive, genre study, blog writing, etc.) introduce students to a range of mentor texts that exemplify effective writing in different genres and modes. Have students analyse these texts through close reading tasks to identify their key features and language techniques, and then use these mentor texts as models for their own writing. For example, in a persuasive unit students could study persuasive speeches, editorials, opinion pieces, and TED talks to understand the different strategies and language features used in each form.
- Writing Workshop: Encourage students to generate and develop their own ideas through writing workshops that emphasise brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. Provide prompts or open-ended questions that encourage students to think creatively and generate new ideas. As they develop their writing, encourage students to collaborate with their peers and receive feedback from both peers and teachers.
- Writing in Different Modes: Help students understand the different modes of writing (e.g., imaginative, informative, expository, and persuasive) and how they can be used to achieve different purposes and appeal to different audiences. Have students experiment with writing in different modes and reflect on the choices they made in terms of purpose, audience, and context.
- Vocabulary Development: Vocabulary is an essential component of effective writing. Reading widely and often is the best way to develop vocabulary, but words can also be taught through more explicit instruction. You could provide a word of the day, have students create word walls, or encourage them to explore assistive tools like Grammarly.
- Analysis of Authorial Choices: Help students understand the ways in which authors use language to achieve their aims by analysing the choices that authors make in their writing. For example, students could analyse how a persuasive speech uses rhetorical devices to appeal to the audience, or how a memoir uses sensory details to create vivid images. Have students reflect on how they can use these techniques in their own writing to achieve their own aims.
- Digital Writing: It’s important to incorporate digital writing skills into the English curriculum. Have students experiment with different digital tools and platforms for writing, such as blogs, social media, and multimedia presentations. If students are over 13, they can also use tools like ChatGPT to assist with their writing. Encourage them to think about how these tools can be used to achieve different purposes and appeal to different audiences.
- Spelling and Grammar: While spelling and grammar may not be the most exciting aspect of writing, they are essential components of effective writing. Help students develop their spelling and grammar skills through targeted lessons and practice activities which focus on teaching grammar in context. For example, you could incorporate grammar instruction into your analysis of mentor texts.
Lesson example: Using mentor texts
Here’s an example for a junior level lesson on speech-writing which could be part of a unit on public speaking, personal stories, or autobiographies.
The Power of Vulnerability: An Analysis of Brené Brown’s TED Talk
Objective: Students will be able to analyse Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, identify key features, and use them as models for their own writing.
- Computer with internet access and projector
- Whiteboard and markers
- Handout with transcript of the TED talk
- Notebooks or paper
Introduction (10 minutes)
- Begin the lesson by asking students if they have ever heard of Brené Brown or her TED talk on vulnerability. This talk is popular in wellbeing programs and students may have seen it, or extracts of it.
- Show some of the TED talk video “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown and explain that students will be analysing this talk to identify key features and language techniques that make it effective.
Mentor Text Analysis (30 minutes)
- Distribute the handout with the transcript of the TED talk.
- Close reading: Instruct students to read the transcript and identify key features and language techniques that make the talk effective (examples at the end).
- Have students work in pairs or small groups to discuss their findings.
- Hold a class discussion to share findings, and write the key features and language techniques on the whiteboard.
Modelling (10 minutes)
- Using Brené Brown’s TED talk as a model, identify and discuss the key features and language techniques that make the talk effective (see below).
- Discuss how these features and techniques could be used in other forms of writing, such as personal essays or speeches.
Writing Activity (30 minutes)
- Instruct students to brainstorm a personal response about a time when they embraced vulnerability and how it affected their life.
- Encourage students to use the key features and language techniques identified in Brené Brown’s TED talk as models for their own writing.
- Provide time for students to work independently on turning their brainstorms into a draft written piece.
- Provide individual feedback and support through conferencing.
Wrap-up (10 minutes)
- Ask for volunteers to share their writing and discuss how they incorporated the key features and language techniques from Brené Brown’s TED talk.
- Review the key features and language techniques identified in the lesson and ask students to reflect on how they can use them in their own writing.
Examples of features and techniques from the TED talk
- Personal story: Brown begins her talk with a personal anecdote that engages the audience and sets the tone for the rest of the talk.
- Humour: Brown uses humour throughout the talk to keep the audience engaged and to add lightness to a serious topic.
- Relatable content: Brown talks about universal emotions and experiences that everyone can relate to, making her message accessible and relevant.
- Research-based: Brown backs up her arguments with research and data, making her talk more credible and trustworthy.
- Clear structure: Brown uses a clear structure that guides the audience through her argument and makes it easy to follow.
- Repetition: Brown uses repetition throughout the talk to emphasise key points and to create a rhythm.
- Metaphors: Brown uses metaphors such as “life is messy” and “lean into the discomfort” to make abstract concepts more concrete and memorable.
- Consonance: Brown uses consonance, such as “Jackson Pollock crazy,” to add rhythm.
- Emotive language: Brown uses emotive language, such as “excruciating vulnerability,” to create an emotional connection with the audience.
- Inclusive language: Brown uses inclusive language, such as “we” and “us,” to create a sense of community and to stress that everyone experiences vulnerability.
Here are a few other resources to help with bringing Crafting Texts into Y7-10:
- The Y11 ‘Futures’ mentor text collection could be used as a model for text selection in other years
- The Education Vic Literacy toolkit has more information on mentor texts and models
- Advice from the Iowa Reading Center on selecting mentor texts
- One of my earlier posts on mentor texts could easily be applied to the 7-10 curriculum
I hope you find this post helpful, whether you’re using the ideas for VCE English or any other writing unit with mentor texts.
If you have any questions, feedback, or there’s something you’d like to see in this series of posts, then please let me know via the form below: