Bunthorne's Blog

Stewart McGowan's blog

Improving Students’ Extended Writing – the Work So Far

This is largely a rehash of what I’ve written about elsewhere in the blog but it’s worth going over, mainly because I’ve had a few requests lately for resources.

A big part of my work as a consultant has been to work on later years literacy. The course I put together as part of this work is called ‘Improving Students’ Writing in your KLA’ – it’s designed to be relevant acros a range of subject areas.

It’s built around some key ideas in literacy. The really central one is that students’ writing won’t improve unless we explicitly teach writing. Sounds like a no-brainer but in the context of the HSC, with busy people intent on delivering content, it’s easy to lose sight of the need to build on what students can do and show them where to go next.

Central to the course is the idea of feedback. If you know Karen Yager’s work, or you’ve read John Hattie, you’ll know how powerful feedback is – but what does effective feedback look like? I’ve proposed a structure based around a six-point diagram that’s designed to give teachers a framework for providing feedback. I’ve borrowed from Karen the idea of feedback and ‘feed forward’ throughout. Telling students what they can already do, then where they need to go next, is a key strategy.

In short, when we’re looking at a student’s extended writing, we typically find a range of problems that we want to ‘feed forward’ to them about, including:

  • that they really don’t know the content well enough
  • that their writing is unstructured
  • that they aren’t writing enough
  • that their writing lacks complexity
  • that they’re not ‘answering the question’ in a precise way
  • that they’re not dealing with the big ideas

In the course, I suggest that these six points are points on a cycle. If we build knowledge, then structure, then elaboration, then complexity, then cohesion, then concept – then we’ve built quality writing. I came up with this approach in particular because, while everyone uses high-end work samples, there’s not to my mind much teaching about the steps on the way to composing high-end, academic, conceptual writing of the kind valued in the HSC.

Here’s the diagram that I use as the centre of the course:

The Writing Cycle

Try it out: have a look at a few work samples and see if you can ‘track’ the sample to the diagram. It’s supposed to help make the ‘feed forward’ conversation with the student easier: ‘Look, you clearly know your texts well, your essay’s well organised and you’re writing a longer response, but let’s work on your sentences to see if we can get more complex ideas into your response.’ That kind of thing.

When I’m working individually with students I often take them around this cycle in an effort to build a quality paragraph. There’s an example of this at the back of the course handout.

Now I mentioned earlier that improving writing should be explicit – and that’s what else is in the handout that you can download here: Improving Writing Support booklet. In it are a range of strategies that I’ve used in English and other KLA’s to explicitly build students’ writing skills. There’s activities that encourage students to learn about what they’re studying through writing, scaffolding proformas, suggestions for encouraging elaboration, activities on building complexity through sentence-based activities, passages that demonstrate high-level cohesion and suggestions for building complexity.

I thought of editing this all back so that it only included English examples but I’ve left the other KLA examples in there just to make the point: every KLA is responsible for the specific, subject-based literacies in their own area.

I’m hoping this is useful for the people who asked. Some of you will no doubt be sick of the mantra – ‘explicit, systematic, balanced, integrated’ – but there’s a solid, practical focus in this.

Ultimately, academic writing is no easy thing and many of our students will need help to get there. This is my model for doing that.

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