Teaching Writing: The Challenges

This is the second 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.

In the previous post I took responses from teachers across Australia and looked at what we enjoy most about teaching writing. There were a few common themes: modelling new styles of writing, encouraging student creativity, and helping students to find their voice. But we know that teaching writing also comes with its own challenges.

Writing instruction often plays second fiddle to reading in secondary schools. Even though we face pressure from high stakes written exams like the VCE and HSC, we rarely spend as much time on teaching writing as we do on reading texts. That’s problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, we spend so long teaching texts that when it comes time to write about them, we haven’t actually taught students how to write. That leads into the second problem: from a lack of time or lack of student confidence, we fall back on formulaic structures like TEEL or the five-body-paragraph essay. Finally, when we focus too much on reading and not enough on writing, it means that the little time we do have left gets spent on analytical writing at the expense of other modes and forms.

All of these challenges were expressed in the feedback from teachers, along with other important points.

Here are the top 10 challenges of teaching writing:

  1. Time constraints and the pressure to meet assessment criteria, leading to a focus on the end product rather than the writing process.
  2. Students entering high school with poor foundational skills.
  3. Lack of engagement with certain texts or topics.
  4. Limited opportunities for creative writing.
  5. Difficulty scaffolding writing instruction for students at different levels.
  6. Over-reliance on formulaic structures and prescriptive writing conventions.
  7. Lack of vocabulary and sentence structure skills.
  8. Differentiating instruction for students with varying abilities.
  9. Teachers feeling overwhelmed or lacking in confidence in their own knowledge and abilities.
  10. The challenge of helping students with limited English mechanics express their ideas effectively.

Like the previous post, I’m going to focus on three key areas from the feedback.

Finding the time

To make the most of the time we have in the curriculum, we need to consciously design scope and sequence to include sufficient opportunities to write. That might include developing units of work focused on writing, or building writing opportunities into other units. The planning should take into account just how complex teaching writing really is: it’s not enough to just show students some examples of texts and expect the to replicate them. Writing needs to be taught through a variety of methods and in many contexts.

Here are some strategies for getting the most out of the time you spend on writing instruction:

  • Integrate writing into all subject areas: Speak to your colleagues in other faculties and find out what students need to write. Encourage students to practise writing in different disciplines and styles: all of the instruction for writing doesn’t have to happen in the English classroom.
  • Balance process and product: Emphasise the importance of planning, drafting, revising, and editing. Encourage students to view writing as a process that can be improved over time – scroll down and check out the writing cycle.
  • Use mentor texts everywhere: The new VCE Study Design has mentor texts in Units 1 and 3, but they can feature throughout the curriculum. Select high-quality examples of writing in various genres and styles to demonstrate effective writing techniques and inspire students.
  • Set clear faculty goals: Your English faculty needs a strategy. To get clear on why you want to teach more writing, you first need to articulate a clear faculty vision and develop some strategic directions and goals. This helps justify to staff and leadership why you need time to develop units and to attend professional development. to fill any gaps.
  • Encourage independent writing: Provide opportunities for students to write about topics that interest them, fostering a love of writing and allowing them to practise their skills in a more engaging way.

Sign up to the mailing list for a free ebook with over 30 activities and 50 writing prompts that can be used as low-stakes writing tasks to build students’ confidence:

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Engaging writing

Writing in secondary schools often ends up being all about the analytical essay. Honestly, I cringe when I see Year 7 students constructing TEEL paragraphs or – even worse – entire essays. There’s no need for students that young to be attempting sophisticated analytical writing. It’s also not a requirement of the Australian Curriculum for students in the junior years to write full essays.

Most importantly, treating writing instruction as a race to the finish is often incredibly boring for students. Just because the Year 12 examination is assessed based on analytical writing, doesn’t mean students need to be subjected to years of paragraph scaffolds.

You can create engaging opportunities for writing which balance structured, explicit instruction of skills with opportunities to write freely and creatively. Whether students are writing fiction or nonfiction, they should be encouraged to explore ideas without the pressure of writing full essays or fitting their thoughts into limiting structures.

Low stakes writing activities can fit into any stage of the writing process, including as part of idea generation or drafting.

In our new book, Practical Writing Strategies, we suggest the following writing process:

This is one of the activities from Practical Writing Strategies that can help engage students and relieve the pressure of having to write for assessment:

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.

Teacher instructions

These instructions outline a four-step process for brainstorming and organising ideas around a specific topic.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:
  1. Why did I categorise these ideas together?
  2. What connections or themes do these ideas share?
  3. How do these ideas fit together in the broader context of the topic?
  4. Are there any gaps or missing pieces in my organisation?
  5. How might these ideas fit into a larger argument or story?
  1. 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.
Expressions of interest are now open for the first cohort of the Practical Writing Strategies four-week online course. For more information and to register your interest, click here.

Breaking away from formulaic writing

Many of you will know by now where I stand on writing scaffolds like TEEL. As well as running PD for teachers on how to break away from these structures, I’ve written a lot about why these scaffolds – designed to help students – end up holding them back. I’ve also written before about ways to get away from structures like TEEL.

Here are a few of those past articles that explore why formulaic structures get in the way of good writing, and what to do about them:

We can’t tackle all of these issues in one go. There are many complex reasons why it’s hard to find the time to teach writing, from teacher workloads, to curriculum constraints, to the confidence of teachers themselves as writers.

As this series unfolds I’ll be trying to tackle as many of these challenges as possible. I’m also working on turning Practical Writing Strategies into a four-week course which will take teachers through the writing cycle and the activities in the book. I’ll also work individually with participants on updating or creating a new unit that helps to teach writing. The first cohort will be limited to 25 participants. Expressions of interest are now open for the first cohort of the Practical Writing Strategies four-week online course. For more information and to register your interest, click here.

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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.

Practical Writing Strategies is available now from Amba Press

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