This is the first post in a series responding to feedback from my mailing list members. I asked people about the highs and lows of teaching writing: what do we enjoy the most, and what are the issues or concerns. I’ve received hundreds of responses to the surveys, and have broken them down into three posts.
Since I left the classroom at the end of 2023, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many schools in different sectors and contexts. I’ve also been to several in person and online conferences with English teachers, and have spoken to dozens of teachers about their experiences teaching writing. I’ve also started to explore the threats and opportunities presented by AI for teaching writing, and how English teachers are well placed to deal with some of these issues.
I’m steering away from AI in this series and getting back to the fundamentals of what people enjoy about teaching writing, and what gets in the way. I’ll also offer some practical advice on how to make the most of teaching writing to secondary students.
Here are the top 10 things people love about teaching writing:
- Encouraging and developing student creativity and ideas.
- Modelling and scaffolding great writing techniques and skills.
- Helping students clarify their thoughts and express themselves effectively.
- Seeing growth and improvement in students’ writing.
- Using mentor texts and problem-solving techniques to achieve writing goals.
- Providing an outlet for students to be creative and explore their ideas.
- Building student confidence in their writing abilities.
- Enjoying the process of brainstorming and discussing ideas with students.
- Watching students develop their own unique voice and style in writing.
- Finding joy and excitement in the process of teaching and working with students in the classroom.
I’m going to focus on three key areas from the feedback.
Creativity, voice, and confidence
Nurturing creativity, voice, and confidence in students is not only important in teaching writing, it’s also one of the most fun aspects for teachers. Watching a student grow in confidence as they start to “find their voice” can be very powerful. Of all the feedback from the survey, this was the most common response to the question “what do you enjoy most about teaching writing?”
Here are some strategies for fostering creativity, voice, and confidence in your students:
- Encourage risk-taking and experimentation: Create a safe and supportive classroom environment where students feel comfortable trying new writing techniques, styles, and genres. Emphasise the value of the learning process, and reassure students that it’s okay to make mistakes as they explore their creativity.
- Provide constructive feedback: Offer specific, actionable feedback that highlights the strengths of students’ writing while also suggesting areas for improvement. This balance will help students recognise their progress and motivate them to continue refining their skills.
- Use diverse mentor texts: Expose students to a wide range of writing styles, genres, and voices by incorporating mentor texts from various authors and sources. Discuss how these writers use language, structure, and other techniques to create their unique voice, and encourage students to experiment with these approaches in their own writing.
- Facilitate peer collaboration: Encourage students to share their work with their peers and provide feedback to one another. This collaborative process can help students develop their voice and gain confidence in their writing abilities, as they learn from the perspectives and insights of their classmates.
- Use low stakes creative writing exercises: Incorporate creative writing activities, such as free-writing, journaling, or writing prompts, into your lessons. These exercises can help students tap into their imaginations, explore new ideas, and develop their voice without the pressure of adhering to specific assignment guidelines. Don’t assess these items: they’re just for freeing up the writing and building confidence.
- Celebrate individuality: Recognise and celebrate the unique voices and perspectives of your students. Emphasise that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to writing, and that each student’s distinctive voice is an asset.
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The writing process from brainstorming to modelling
One aspect of writing instruction that many teachers enjoy is teaching students the process from ideas to finished product. In particular, teachers enjoy the exploration of ideas, brainstorming, and the analysis of mentor texts.
In our new book, Practical Writing Strategies, we suggest the following writing process:
In the first stage, Purpose, students need to develop a clear understanding of the effect audience, purpose, form, and context have on their writing. They then move onto the exploration stage where they analyse mentor texts for ideas and inspiration.
In the ideas stage, we recommend Project Zero Thinking Routines and activities which deliberately guide students through brainstorming. We’ve found that we often assume students know how to brainstorm, but in reality when we ask for something like a mind map we more often get a quickly scribbled drawing that resembles a five legged spider…
Instead of this half-hearted attempt at idea generation, we recommend that you guide students through a systematic process for generating and developing their ideas.
This is one of the activities from Practical Writing Strategies:
ACTIVITY 1: Freewriting Frenzy (p. 51)
This freewriting frenzy activity is based on the Generate-Sort-Connect- Elaborate thinking routine, which helps students delve into the big ideas of a text or topic. The Write, Organise, Link, Expand phases of this activity are designed to help students brainstorm, write and think more deeply about their topics.
In the first step, students should engage in freewriting and write down as many ideas as they can think of. Step two involves organising these ideas into groups or links. By doing this, students can begin to see a picture forming of their topic. In step four, students can delve deeper into their topic by conducting research, finding mentor texts and deepening their knowledge of the topic.
These instructions outline a four-step process for brainstorming and organising ideas around a specific topic.
- Write: In this step, students are encouraged to write down as many ideas as they can about the topic. This is a ‘brain dump’ phase where students shouldn’t worry about the quality or relevance of their ideas, but rather focus on generating as many ideas as possible.
- Organise: Once students have written as many ideas as they can, they should then group these ideas into similar categories such as ideas, themes, characters or settings. This can be done through colour-coding similar categories with the same colour or by organising the ideas into a chart or graphic.
- Link: After all the ideas have been categorised, students should consider why they placed certain ideas together in the same category. They critically engage with their ideas and consider why they placed them in the same category. These prompts may help:
- Why did I categorise these ideas together?
- What connections or themes do these ideas share?
- How do these ideas fit together in the broader context of the topic?
- Are there any gaps or missing pieces in my organisation?
- How might these ideas fit into a larger argument or story?
- Expand: In the final step, students should explore their ideas and organisation in more depth. This could involve adding more layers and ideas or conducting further research into their ideas. For example, students might consider who is involved in their ideas, who’s written on these ideas in the past and what mentor texts they can include.
Writing for the sake of it
Last of all, teachers enjoy the experience of writing “just for the sake of it”. Too often, writing in a secondary context is confined to assessment. When we only explore writing as a tool for judging a students’ knowledge of an issue or text, we’re missing out on the most creative and exciting aspects of writing.
We need to find time to explore writing outside of the context of assessment. Here are a few assessment-free writing tasks which can be worked into any unit of work in English, whether you’re studying a text, an issue, creative writing, or anything else:
- Free-writing exercises: Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and encourage students to write continuously without worrying about grammar, punctuation, or even making sense. This activity helps students overcome writer’s block, explore new ideas, and discover their own writing style. This could be part of the brainstorming process like the activity outlined above, or it could be a warm-up or end-of-lesson activity.
- Writing prompts: Provide students with open-ended prompts or interesting images to spark their imagination. Encourage them to write a short story, poem, or descriptive piece based on the prompt, allowing their creativity to flow without the constraints of a specific assignment.
- Journalling: Encourage students to maintain a writing journal where they can write about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Journalling offers students an opportunity to practice self-expression, reflection, and the development of their unique voice.
- Collaborative storytelling: In groups or pairs, have students create a story by taking turns writing one sentence at a time. This activity fosters teamwork, creativity, and adaptability, as students must build upon each other’s ideas and maintain a cohesive narrative. This activity is sometimes called exquisite corpse.
- Six-word stories: Challenge students to write a complete story in just six words. This activity helps students focus on the importance of word choice and precision, while also sparking their creativity.
- Found poetry: Have students create poems using words and phrases found in existing texts, such as newspaper articles, book pages, or song lyrics. This activity encourages students to play with language and explore new ways of expressing themselves.
- Character or setting exploration: Ask students to write a detailed description of a character or setting from a text they are studying, or have them create an original character or setting for a story. This activity helps students practice descriptive writing and develop their understanding of narrative elements.
There are plenty of positives to teaching writing, but we need to find ways to carve out the time needed to value the whole process from purpose to publication. In the next post, I’ll explore some of the challenges we face when trying to teach writing in secondary school.
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Practical Writing Strategies is available now and contains dozens of activities which span the six stages of the writing cycle. The book also suggests ways to incorporate writing into any unit of work, or create whole units focused on quality writing instruction.
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