Revisiting Slow Writing – how slowing writing might speed up thinking

Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.

Shakespeare

It’s been a while since I first wrote about Slow Writing and in that time it’s rather taken on a life of its own. Today I had the interesting experience of someone excitedly telling me about this ‘great idea’ they’d been using to transforming students’ writing, and guess what? Now, I don’t want to suggest that I’m precious about it or that it’s in any way ‘mine’, but it is one of the relatively few good original ideas I’ve had and I feel a certain sense of paternal pride in its increasingly viral spread.

I first came up with the idea when teaching an intervention class  of Year 11 C/D borderline boys in about 2008. Broadly speaking they were willing, but no matter what I tried the writing they produced was leaden, plodding stuff. I gave them all kinds of outlandish and creative prompts which they would dead bat and produce yet another dreary yawnfest. Needless to say, we were all getting a bit irritated with each other. Out of sheer frustration I decide to give them explicit instructions on how to write a text sentence by sentence.

Sort of like this:

  • Your first sentence must starting with a present participle (that’s a verb ending in ‘ing’)
  • Your second sentence must contain only three words.
  • Your third sentence must contain a semi-colon
  • Your fourth sentence must be a rhetorical question
  • Your fifth sentence will start with an adverb
  • Your sixth sentence will be 22 words exactly.

And so on. Much to my surprise they loved it. I remember one boy saying, “Bloody hell! This is the first time I’ve written anything that isn’t rubbish!” and asking if he could take it home to show his mum.

I’ve come to understand that an expert writer thinks not just about what they write, but about how they write it. We have the ability to matacognitively engage with our writing and make decisions about what is likely to sound best. Often we do this at a level beneath consciousness; the questions we ask about our writing are automatic and so well stored in long-term memory that we’re not really aware of what we’re doing.

But novice writers don’t have this ability. They tend to default to the time-worn narratives they have used before and shape what they know in the simplest most straightforward way they can. As they write they’re so busy thinking about what to write that there’s little space in working memory to consider how it might be written. Giving pupils sentence prompts frees up working memory so they can shape what they know in a more sophisticated way. These constraints provide pupils with the metacognitive prompts for thinking about what they know and allow them to be creative.

Since writing the original post, I’ve talked to a number of different people about how they use Slow Writing and have been able to refined and adapted some of my thinking.  One of the big changes is my conclusion that explicitly teaching pupils how to write different types of sentences doesn’t just make them better writers, it makes them better at thinking about subject content.

This post on crafting beautiful sentences was the start of the process. The idea was that by explicitly teaching pupils to use a range of different sentence structures they would think differently about subject content.

If just asked pupils to write what they knew about the relationship between George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, they might say something like this:

George and Lennie really like each other but sometimes George gets angry with Lennie.

But what if I gave them something like this?

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 17.49.17Wouldn’t they be forced to think in a more sophisticated way about what they knew?

This can also work in other subjects.  Consider this 6 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.

Normally pupils would just dump what they knew about the subject on the page with little regard to how their writing is structured. But what if we taught them to use specific sentence structures? Let’s say we ask them to structure their answer by beginning with the phrase “Considering that…” – how might that affect the way they thought about the science they knew? When I’ve worked with teachers to experiment with this we’ve found that not only does make students better writers, more importantly if makes them better at thinking. By considering the shape of what they know, the ideas become more nuanced.

And if we are relentless about asking pupils to practice using a range of sentence structures to think in this way, it’ll become permanent. The structures will transfer to long-term memory leaving their fragile working memories free to think about subject content with great depth and sophistication.

If you’re interested in finding out more, I’ve written about this in more detail in my new book The Secret of Literacy. And do please let me know if you come up with any exciting new variants on using Slow Writing.

Related post

A new twist on Slow Writing

27 Responses to Revisiting Slow Writing – how slowing writing might speed up thinking

  1. D Kerr-Morgan says:

    I’m a big fan of SLOW Writing and plan to introduce it at some cross curricular Literacy CPD. I’m already planning to promote your book ‘Secret’s of Literacy’ so will give you full credit for the approach.

  2. Paul Rees says:

    I have always found (always meaning since 1987) that kids who like Maths much more than English tend to respond well to the idea of a formula for opening and closing paragraphs, along the lines of the ‘recipe’ of sentence lengths and things to include that you give here. My Set 8 Y11s last year really responded to a recipe for starting the AQA longer writing question that went:
    – first sentence, use a rhetorical question that uses a personal pronoun
    – second sentence that gives a blunt response in three words.
    – third sentence that uses a three part repetitive structure
    – fourth sentence that is simple.
    – fifth sentence that is complex and begins with an ‘-ing’ word
    – sixth sentence that is compound
    – Final sentence that is short and to the point.

    What they liked was it was learnable and you could ‘get it right or wrong’ I tried a similar approach with Set 3 this year, and once the idea was up and running encouraged them to individualise their own formula and maybe try to include a wider range of persuasive devices. I await August with some optimism.

  3. Mark says:

    You should have trademarked it! A certain Mr Beadle happened to mention it at a recent course I was on although not explicitly as ‘slow writing’.

  4. Darren Birch says:

    In the upper and post secondary world “They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing” 2nd Ed. by G. Graff & C. Birkenstein (Norton 2010) offers similar structures to get students thinking and writing. I’ve used it myself to aid my own writing and value the clear way the structures enable me to both teach writing and write better myself.

  5. […] Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast. Shakespeare It’s been a while since I first wrote about Slow Writing and in that time it’s rather taken on a life of its own. Today I had the interesting experience of someone excitedly telling me about this ‘great idea’ they’d been using to transforming students’ writing, and  […]

  6. […] NB – my latest thinking on Slow Writing can be found here. […]

  7. Absolutely love the blog! Have gotten so many cool ideas to utilise in my own classroom, including this lovely post here. Keep up the good work!

  8. […] Slow Writing: how slowing down can improve your writing Black space: improving writing by increasing lexical density The art of beautifully crafted sentences A new twist on Slow Writing Revisiting Slow Writing – how slowing writing might speed up thinking […]

  9. […] construction is not a million miles away from Doug Lemov’s Golden Sentence, David Didau’s Slow Writing and some of the excellent work produced by the likes of Andy Tharby and Chris […]

  10. Joanne Duncan says:

    Hi David – I love this idea. With the redrafting process, do the pupils still have to stick to the original structure when they are redrafting or is this simply to get thinking about different structures in the first place? I teach various ages and ability one of which is the Fresh Start phonics programme with year 8s who are about 4 years behind their peers. I am looking forward to trying this with them.

  11. […] developed by David Didau in his “The Secret of Literacy Book“, and also his blog (click here), the concept challenges pupils to follow explicit instructions on how to write a text sentence by […]

  12. […] were given very clear instructions on how to write their paragraphs and what to include. Based on David’s ground rules for slow writing we asked our groups to:  Write a shared paragraph on the desk, window or floor. […]

  13. I am a new fan of slow writing. . I’m practicing…. thanks a lot Dr. David

  14. […] If you want to read more about it, do please read this post. […]

  15. […] My view is that creativity requires form. This is as true of mathematics, art, music, science and engineering as it is of writing. In order to write a sonnet, one has to understand the rules of the sonnet form. And in order to play with the form, to experiment with the rules and yes, to break them, you still need to know what those rules are. If you don’t know how a sentence operates how can you truly be creative in the way you construct your sentences? Just having ideas and tossing them at the page simply isn’t good enough. Providing a clear, comprehensible framework for how to structure these ideas will help pupils to have a greater ability to process their ideas into a form which has worth. This is the essence of strategies like Slow Writing. […]

  16. […] Alongside this list, which students stuck into the front inside cover of their books, I created a lesson starter called ‘At the Bus Stop’ (actually, I stole this from a primary school that I visited). As the class was working on descriptive writing at the time, at the start of every lesson I asked students to imagine meeting a different person at the school bus stop. They had to describe this encounter using a specific set of the big 15 sentences, selected through random numbers (1, 14, 5, 6, 3, 11 etc.,). This ‘Slow Writing’ approach was heavily influenced by David Didau’s blogging, found here and here. […]

  17. […] Revisiting Slow Writing – how slowing writing might speed up thinking. Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.Shakespeare It’s been a while since I first wrote about Slow Writing and in that time it’s rather taken on a life of its own. Today I had the interesting experience of someone excitedly telling me about this ‘great idea’ they’d been using to transforming students’ writing, and guess what? Now, I don’t want to suggest that I’m precious about it or that it’s in any way ‘mine’, but it is one of the relatively few good original ideas I’ve had and I feel a certain sense of paternal pride in its increasingly viral spread. I first came up with the idea when teaching an intervention class of Year 11 C/D borderline boys in about 2008. […]

  18. Naomi Hursthouse says:

    I love this approach and have written it into lots of our schemes of work. We have also tried using it as a group work challenge. Groups are given instructions, one by one, on slips of paper. They have show their sentence to you, and have it approved, before they are allowed the next slip. The students loved this, becoming very competitive about who would finish first, and I found the quality of the conversations that I had with students about their sentences and why they were or were not good enough, in my book, were astounding.

  19. […] writing task by following a series of instructions. Following that, he has also suggested “how slowing writing might speed up thinking“. In my case, I tried to find a solution to the question of “What do I […]

  20. Carmel gibbons says:

    Wonderful! I’m going to share this with my students at the first opportunity

  21. Abena Bailey says:

    You should also have a look at Killgallon and Jeff Anderson for mentor sentences. The latter has completely changed my approach to raising awareness of language.

  22. […] More information about slow writing can be found here. […]

  23. Rufus says:

    We just had a CPD that included a Slow Writing idea of yours. It was very enjoyable to try.

  24. Justine Keeling- Paglia says:

    Just tried this with my Year 5 class. They decided on a story title and then we did a collective write on the board of the first three sentences. Then the children wrote in pairs, swapping the prompt slips between them. I have never seen such delighted writers. They all, every single one, instinctively up-skilled the content of the sentences, now that the difficult bit of self starting was removed. I was bowled over by the results. Year 6 have just tried it too and had similar results; their teacher is also stunned at the quality of work to come from her reluctant writers.
    We are now going to try it as another paired write, then an individual, then with one prompt only, to see what progression there may be in independent writing.

  25. […] encourage a more metacognitive approach to the act of writing. This is essentially the idea behind Slow Writing and one I’m happy to endorse. However, what children write is as important as how they write […]

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