Do we value pupils’ writing?

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Why do we ask pupils to write? There may be very many answers to that question but in my experience of working with teachers and observing lessons, overwhelmingly, teachers ask pupils to write in order to check that lesson content has been understood. This is of course a worthy aim, but do we value the actual writing?

Leadership guru, John C. Maxwell said, “To add value to others, one must first value others.” Likewise, to add value to pupils’ writing, one must first value pupils’ writing.

In a lesson I observed last year, a science teacher had taught her Year 8 class about Marie Curie and her discovery of radium. In order to check they had understood, she asked them to write a letter to Madame Curie informing her of how her discovery had changed the world. As this was a science lesson the teacher had, quite rightly, not spent any time teaching her students how to write letters. The result was, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the pupils produced dreadfully written letters with little understanding of the mode of writing and numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes. OK, not great but it was at least an opportunity to identify and correct their mistakes. But no: the teacher then festooned these letters with ticks and ‘well dones’. Why? Because they had understood the content. But what had they learned about writing?

Very rarely do scientist write letters to other, dead scientists. When I asked the teacher about why she had decided to ask for the response to be written in the form of a letter, she explained that she had thought it would be a nice opportunity to develop her pupils’ literacy. But this well-intentioned task actively undermined her pupils’ ability to write well by inadvertently teaching them that it is only the content that matters.

Pupils are expected to write in most of their lessons but rarely is their writing valued for how it is written, merely on what it contains. But if we don’t value how they write, why should they? And if writing is not seen as valuable in its own right, then what pupils will learn is that as long as you get down the facts, writing doesn’t matter.

Here are some other well-intentioned but misguided attempts to improve pupils’ writing I’ve observed:

  • History: Write a tabloid article about the Battle of 1066.
  • Maths: Write a leaflet explaining triangles to an alien
  • Geography: Pretend you’re a volcano and write a description of what it feels like to erupt.

In each case the teacher is faced with a choice: either commit time to explicitly teaching tabloid journalism, leaflet design or descriptive writing or teach the content of their subject. Time spent on writing in ways that are irrelevant to your subject is time you can’t spend teaching your subject. (This is, I would suggest, an example of a real dichotomy.) If you decide not to commit valuable teaching time to these irrelevancies then pupils are unlikely to write well. What we practise we get good at, and if pupils spend time practising writing that is only valued in terms of the content knowledge it contains, then they are not going to get good at writing well.

So what to do? The answer may be to view the content and the language of your subject as inseparable, and teach the genres of writing that naturally occur in your subject. How do geographers write? As a subject specialist you probably already know, but a quick google search revealed this useful looking document. And the inestimable Darren Mead sent me these superb examples of generic writing applied to a range of subjects: explanation, procedural, report, recount and review.

For some really excellent examples of this in action I can heartily recommend Lee Donaghy’s blog.

For your convenience, I’ve collated some research on subject specific writing genres and put together the following document on genres in geography, history and science:

But what about subject like maths where there isn’t really any naturally occurring genres of writing? Earlier this week, I was sent this example of writing in maths by the wonderful David Chart (@tallerteacher):
Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 15.11.51Here is a zoom into the first paragraph:
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I was initially sceptical about the idea of spending time on extended writing in maths but David assures me that as well as improving his pupils’ writing, this is also making them better mathematicians because of the time spent thinking about how to explain the concepts about which they have learned.
Thought frames, not writing frames
In most cases though we should probably restrict ourselves to the writing pupils will be asked to do in our subjects. We could profitably spend time thinking about activities that have the dual purpose of improving writing and making our pupils better subject specialists.
Consider this example from a design technology test:

What are the main advantages of using an operational amplifier like the Darlington transistor circuit?

We could scaffold pupils’ attempts to craft a response that expresses more complex thoughts by asking them to respond by putting the reasons in the subordinate clause and the effects in the independent clause:

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 15.05.57

Here’s a similar example from English literature:

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 23.33.53

Once the sentence structure is taught, pupils are able to think differently about what they have learned.

And here’s a six mark question from a biology exam:

Farm animals give off large amounts of methane. Explain the effects of adding large amounts of methane to the atmosphere.
Most pupils will default to listing what they know in response to this sort of question. But would the response be more sophisticated if we asked pupils to use the following sentence structure to make their response:
Considering that____________________, ________________________________.
Wouldn’t this force them to interact with the subject content in a more interesting way?
Or what about this geography question:

Why are the effects of droughts worse in less economically developed countries (LEDCs) than more economically developed countries (MEDCs)?

If we taught pupils to write a sentence beginning with ‘Although…’, would they produce a more interesting response?

And I particularly love this example from Doug Lemov’s blog.
Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 14.55.50
Given this prompt most people will write lovely descriptions but may end up missing the point Bruegel is attempting to make: that Icarus’s demise is utterly insignificant.
Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 14.57.37
If you were to ask pupils to write their description beginning with the phrase “At first glance…” it would ensure that they interacted with the content differently. Not only would they become better writers, but also better thinkers. And isn’t all teaching ultimately all about making pupils better thinkers?
So next time you ask your pupils to write, consider the consequences. Are you just asking for content knowledge? Maybe bullet points will suffice. If not some time should be committed to deconstructing examples from your subject and modelling how a ‘good’ response should be constructed.

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23 Responses to Do we value pupils’ writing?

  1. CristinaM. says:

    I tend to agree on the most part of the blog post. Sophisticated writing in each discipline occurs by valuing the genres closest to the discipline itself. As you point out, it also allows for content assessment.

    However, I think a more open approach should be considered at times. The reason is that it increases the degree of difficulty simply by forcing the student to view a topic within a discipline through different lens. Your history example is, to me, relevant. History as a meta-narrative naturally leads to the use of explanation or reporting – thus, writing a tabloid engages a different dimension of it.

    Another example I can give from my own class (2nd grade). While our inquiry into mapping and exploration was unfolding, I had them write diary entries from the perspective of an explorer but they were also involved in writing collaboratively a class science magazine (that included many genres – from news articles on latest discoveries to crossword puzzles in the Entertainment section). In a different stage we also wrote and printed brochures (using online apps http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/student-interactives/printing-press-30036.html ) about imaginary places and travels, as well as had “TV news” about discoveries/explorations. All these somewhat mixed approaches yielded great results – in terms of vocabulary employed, variation of genres, and creativity.

    Also, I think (older) students should already have knowledge of various writing genres not from the subject specialist (say, mathematics teacher) but from the English language teacher. That would reduce the time spent by the subject specialist on the writing techniques.

    • David Didau says:

      Surely the only dimension of history a tabloid newspaper report engages is an incorrect one? If you’re really interested in seeing how ‘ordinary’ people thought about the Norman invasion you might do better to explore the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and interrogate it a source material. Cheap journalistic gimmickry only takes us away from a thoughtful study of history.

      The example of explorer’s diary entries is better: explorers do write diaries and it might be very productive to deconstruct some authentic examples of the genre before modelling & scaffolding how to write you own. This examples takes us closer to the study of geography whereas the history one doesn’t.

      You’re right that students should (and invariably do) have knowledge of various writing genres from their English teacher. problem is, these are often flimsy and occupy the opposite end of the spectrum of literacy atrocities: they are valued only for how they are written and the content becomes meaningless.

      • CristinaM. says:

        I doubt correctness is the key aim – if you look solely for that you could very well use a test. The purpose is to enlarge the view on a historical event /figure through the use of a different genre. History today unfolds and is represented through a variety of media – television debates, newspaper articles, blogs, essays, opinion pieces etc. While I am against using trivial ways of encompassing and analyzing subject knowledge it makes sense to bring more language tools to analyze it. Gimmickry is an unfair word in this case. As for the math example that I would consider a teaching gimmick – it does not correspond to what a mathematician would to (namely, explaining a triangle to an alien) and it is used to make learning “fun”. The same goes for the volcano example.

        • David Didau says:

          I’m sorry Cristina – I can agree that it might be worthwhile to analyse history through the lens of different writing genres, but it’s disingenuous to say that (modern) history unfolds through TV etc. – TV historians make documentaries but this is not historical writing. Time is severely limited for history teachers in UK schools and they shouldn’t fritter it away on engagement, relevance and fun. This being the case, I can see no case for the teaching of tabloid journalism.

          Unless we were studying the history of newspapers or something.

  2. This is interesting. It’s a while since I have been anywhere near secondary education at close quarters (my own kids were pretty coy about what they were up to). I’m genuinely surprised that students were asked to write a letter to Marie Curie, to check what they had taken in. This is just not the way scientists need to think and write. Strange, given that effective writing in science requires a student becoming familiar with the correct use of science vocabulary, and writing up experiments/observations in the third person, setting out calculations in a certain (very clear) manner etc., and all this needs to be mastered. As you say, each subject area has it’s own distinct literacy needs and these should be the focus. It is true, though, that poor literacy skills will hamper progress in science as in most other subjects. (Poor maths skills will also be a problem). Again you are right about the unintended consequences of not insisting on correct language use when the main objective was to check content of the writing. Whatever form writing takes, in whatever subject, it has to be of a high standard, as writing is communication. Poor writing is poor communication, and communication is (nearly) all. It pretty much doesn’t matter what you know or can do if you can’t communicate it effectively.

    • Paul Rees says:

      It is interesting that a teacher of science should choose to check scientific understanding alone using the ‘Write a letter to…’ type task. I find it a bit worrying that a teacher would NOT spend time reinforcing the conventions of the text type that the pupils were being asked to use. These types of tasks spread in English schools in response to the wave of ‘Literacy across the Curriculum’ initiatives spawned by the National Schools Strategy. Their Recommended Status materials (among the better ones they produced) made it crystal clear that we are all teachers of literacy and that letters like this HAD to have a dual purpose (scientific recall and letter writing skill) or they were an utter waste of time. If the products of the children’s efforts were as poor as the piece says then, from the school’s point of view, and very likely from the point of view of the children’s future life chances, the opportunity to develop literacy skills was perhaps of more importance than the Marie Curie content. If the pupils were able to construct well-written letters then the task would again be pointless.

      • David Didau says:

        Writing letters in science can only be an utter waste of time. Time spent teaching letter writing is time you can’t spend teaching science. Much better to concentrate on ‘writing like a scientist'; if you see language and content as the same thing, then this becomes much more straightforward.

        The point about students not being able to construct letters is a distraction. Because I knew many of the students in question I also knew that in an English lesson they both could and did write properly structured, well-written letters. The point is that they had learned that this was not valued in many other lessons.

        • porees says:

          Do you really believe that writing letters in science can only be a waste of time? In 26 years I don’t think I have yet taught with a science teacher who felt truly comfortable being asked to focus on literacy in their lessons; I have seen it done very poorly and to little effect very often, so I suspect I agree with you. Series like ‘Spotlight Science’ continue to have such tasks dotted throughout their textbooks as extension activities which then get used as cover or easy-set home work tasks and run the risk of perpetuating the notion that it doesn’t really matter if inaccuracies creep into one’s writing.

          • David Didau says:

            I really do.

            Having said that, we should expect a science teacher to focus on the literacy which naturally occurs in science. When were a lad, science teachers taught the passive voice and the art of report writing.

  3. […] Why do we ask pupils to write? There may be very many answers to that question but in my experience of working with teachers and observing lessons, overwhelmingly, teachers ask pupils to write in order to check that lesson content has been understood. This is of course a worthy aim, but do we value the actual writing? In  […]

  4. Chris Curtis says:

    Great post, David. I love the writing in Maths extracts. It is quite funny, but for the Spoken Language assessment I have been asking students to write like a scientist. This has produced some good results from them. They get it easily when expressed like that. Maybe we need to be precise and explicit in how a scientist, historian or geographer writes. Again, I keep thinking that this general approach to writing genres and writing purposes hinders expression. Write to show understanding, rather than write to explain the principles of blah blah in the form of a newsletter.

    Possibly the question should be: Do we value the fact that they have written it as a letter?

    Thanks

    Chris

  5. Chris Dean says:

    Good post. I have been experimenting with genre pedagogy for about a year now, inspired by Lee’s blog and some of the reading it led me to. I did give in once and asked pupils to write a newspaper article because we had been absolutely hammering consequential explanations in history and I just felt it was getting too repetitive. Overall, however, I think it’s been really successful and have noticed a definite improvement in the quality of writing of my pupils.

  6. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  7. You can count me as highly sceptical about the values of written explanations in maths, particularly the sort of investigative work based on defunct coursework tasks you show above. It’s not that maths doesn’t have its written forms; it does and these are important. It’s that the ability to write about maths seems remarkably disconnected from the ability to think mathematically. Mathematical writing and spoken mathematical explanations are often used as proxies for mathematical understanding when, in reality, an able mathematician may have an intuitive grasp of a problem that is not easily explained to others.

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Andrew – I’m sceptical myself. It would seem that time spent making students write about maths is time spent not teaching them about maths. I included the example after several maths teachers told me that kind of thing was ace.

      But your comment leads to 2 questions:
      1) What then are the written forms of maths?
      2) Does it matter that a mathematician might not be able to explain their grasp of a mathematical concept?

  8. The emphasis on explanation is a staple of those who believe that “conceptual understanding” in maths is more important than knowledge or the ability to actually work things out. “Mathematical Communication” is one of those “skills” used to squeeze out the ability to do maths.

    As for your questions:

    1) I would say that algebraic notation and use of mathematical symbols are the most important forms of written mathematics to master up to KS4. In fact, the ability to show a chain of reasoning *without words* is an important key to fluency in maths, even if it can only be understood by an equally able mathematician.

    2) It might matter if they planning to become a maths teacher, but it does not matter at all to their ability to do maths. Perhaps an analogy would be: do you have to be good at explaining how you drive to be good at driving?

  9. Di says:

    Excellent points. If other subjects do want to use a ‘creative’ format, perhaps something as simple as checking what is being taught to that class in English with the department and explicitly using that?
    I hit on teaching my classes to start conclusions with ‘despite…’ , and then to summarise the argument they disagreed with, before concluding with what they did agree with, at the start of the year. Result: much more balanced conclusions.

    • di says:

      Having reflected on the post again, I can only think of a few occasions where my first point wouldn’t involve ‘squeezing out’ the primary subject being taught. So scrap that.

  10. […] this post Mr. Lemov discusses the importance of writing for a purpose. It is not enough to assign a writing […]

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