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Archive for the tag “Improving Writing”

Countdown 2015! The Improving Writing presentation

Jasper m beastI’m presenting tomorrow at the English Teachers’ Association’s Annual Conference. The presentation is an update of my work as a literacy consultant. For those who’ve seen it before, my presentation is based on a course I developed for an across KLA audience but I have adapted it several times for different KLA’s, student audiences, different contexts and different delivery timeframes.
Previously with English teachers I’ve used John Foulcher’s ‘Summer Rain’ as a related text but I’ve moved to The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, which is better suited to discovery.
The presentation’s meant to cover a number of bases. It’s meant to in the first case provide information and strategies for teachers who are less familiar with grammar and literacy within English. It’s also meant to give teachers in schools who have to work as part of literacy committees some information that will help them move their schools away from narrow, NAPLAN-based approaches to literacy. Finally it’s designed to continue the conversation. I’ve suggested a range of practical strategies designed to improve students’ writing and outlined a framework that structures the process. But I know that others will take this in their own directions; I encourage you to do so.
The PowerPoint for Friday’s presentation is here: Improving Writing ETA Nov 14 v4
The handout I prepared included my article from last year’s mETAphor, Issue 3. Members can download this from the ETA’s website.
I also included some sample paragraphs to start the conversation. These are here: jasper morello paragraphs v5
Elsewhere on the blog you’ll find previous versions of this course should you wish. Or you can just get in touch. I’ll see a large group of you at conference tomorrow, I’m sure.

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Students don’t answer the question because….

Answering the question is a hard thing to do!

I wrote about this in the last edition of mETAphor (if you’re an ETA member, here’s the link: http://www.englishteacher.com.au/Resources/mETAphor.aspx. If you’re not a member, sorry – I was paid for the article so I need to not republish it here for a while!)

But I thought it was worth adding something to what I’ve already written. I’ve been reading some work by English (Standard) students and I’ve been thinking through the issue of BOS verbs in particular.

When the HSC examiners set a question they intend for it to be accessible to all students. Unlike other subjects, where a question might be targeted at ‘Band 3’ or ‘Band 6’, in English questions are often targeted at ‘Bands 2-6’.

What this means is that the questions are written in such a way that only the very best students are going to be able to balance all of the elements. Think about this year’s HSC question on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, for example:

Owen’s poems present the reader with a powerful exploration of the impact of human cruelty on individuals.

How does Owen achieve this in his poems?

In your response, make detailed reference to your prescribed text.

Look at everything that students are being asked to address.  Students who were doing what their teachers told them to and circled the key terms in the question would need to address ‘powerful exploration’, ‘impact’, ‘human cruelty’, ‘individuals’, ‘how’ and ‘achieve’. That’s a lot to cover! It’s no wonder that some students, when they see a question like this, latch onto one thing they understand and centre their essay on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of students just dealt with the horrors of war Owen describes, for example.

What I’m noticing in particular, though, is that the BOS verbs fit very nicely with what students do: some students working at an elementary level can identify some features of the text. Then there’s those who can describe. A student who’s doing okay can explain – they might tell me about the horrors of war in Owen’s poems, with some details drawn from the poems. A better student can analyse, going beyond the content of the poems to their effect. And the best students can evaluate, talking about the differences between poems and their effect on the reader.

I was visiting at my old school last week and I wandered into a class and shared this observation with them, and encouraged them to work their way up from identifying and describing to explaining, analysing and evaluating – and they were shocked at the revelation that the BOS verbs were applicable to English! Of course, they are – but how often have we bothered to make this explicit? Or to incorporate it into our teaching? As a way of developing quality writing in senior students, it’s a nice little framework. It’s different from my ‘six point plan’ strategy but hey, there’s more than one way to get to your favourite coffee shop.

Somewhere in there, there’s an explicit literacy lesson! I’m working two jobs at the moment so I don’t have the alertness levels necessary to develop it – but perhaps someone out there might want to develop a nice little QT literacy lesson?

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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