Despite my ongoing uncertainty about the age old conundrum of which came first the reading ‘chicken’ and oracy ‘egg’, one thing I am sure of is where writing fits– and it is justifiably at the bottom.
It seems fitting to end with writing since that is ultimately where the ideas gathered from talking and reading will culminate. If there has been sufficient support in developing reading and oracy skills, students should approach writing with ideas on content. However, whilst they may have their ideas, they may not have the necessary technical writing skills needed to ‘put pen to paper’ in order to express their ideas. Students in all of my classrooms have at one point or another muttered the age-old ‘I’ve got the ideas I just don’t know how to start’.
A Writing Utopia?
In essence, students need to consider four things when writing; purpose, content, structure, and spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG). In all subjects across the curriculum, students will undertake a form of writing each lesson: whether an evaluation in Science, a letter in French or a newspaper article in Geography. And in each lesson the approach to writing is possibly, probably different…but imagine for a moment if it were the same. If in every classroom writing was approached in the same way, with the same language choices. Each time a teacher declared ‘now we are going to write…’ the student in that class would be prepared for what was to happen next. The skills acquired elsewhere could be transferred as they would understand that newspapers in Geography require the same language features and structure of those in History, R.E, English and so on. Whilst their content would be marked specifically from a subject point of view, the other assessment areas could be marked using a school-wide assessment scheme. Progress in writing across the curriculum could be monitored and progress tracked which in turn would support the implementation of any necessary interventions. This is my idea of a Literacy Across the Curriuculum Writing Utopia!
So why hasn’t this happened?
Because no-one has given a Literacy Leader in any school I have worked in or with enough support or authority to enforce such a system. In most schools the feeling in that if the students are producing written work that meets the subject specific criteria then that’s okay. This of course is narrow minded and again lends support for the outdated notion that Literacy education is the job of the English team with the other departments ‘doing Literacy’ when and if they can.
What might a common approach in a Writing Utopia look like?
- Students begin with talking about their writing. They consider the Purpose of their writing? Why are they writing it? And linked to this is the who is it for and what format is it in.
- They look at models of the type of text they are writing – good and bad examples. They analyse the models and consider the ingredients – what do they need to include in terms of 3 categories; content, structure and SPaG.
- Students begin to plan content: they consider what they might include in their text. They gather information needed and discuss with peers.
- They plan. But first they need to learn HOW to plan. What might it look like? Could there be different styles of planning? Is one style better than the other?
- They start writing. Stopping to share, assessment, dicuss and edit. Editing is the most important part here, they must be taught the skill of editing – how do we edit? Why? What does it look like? What can help us to edit?
- They assess. Against the subject specific criteria and the cross-curricular writing criteria.
What might the Writing Utopia’s cross-curricular writing criteria include?
I would consider the following four categories of assessment with a scale/score/grade for each. The questions that follow are designed merely as starting points from which you could consider what your school’s assessment criteria might include. (These could be adapted from the wealth of English and Literacy assessment documents already available online or this might be something that your school wants to create from scratch.)
Purpose, audience and format.
Does it fulfill its purpose?
Does it sound ‘right’ for the audience?
Does it look/sound like the type of writing it should be?
(This will in part include subject specific content)
Is key terminology included?
Is there a variety in the vocabulary chosen?
Is it sequenced correctly?
Are appropriate divides used e.g paragraphs, sub-headings etc?
Are discourse markers used to show shifts in the writing?
Do the sentences make sense?
Are a variety of sentences used?
Is punctuation used accurately?
Is a variety of punctuation used?
Is the spelling accurate?
Is the spelling of subject specific terminology accurate?
What might be the outcomes of a Writing Utopia?
Once such a document has been produced, it is then the work of the Literacy Leader and their ‘army’ of supporters to enforce its use, to monitor the implementation and gather data produced. Data would be recorded in one central database that all staff have access to.
In reviewing the data, the Literacy Leader can offer support to the SEND team and other stakeholders in organising and providing suitable interventions for those students who – shock, horror – don’t just have an issue with paragraphs in ICT but also in Design Technology, Business, Art…
During interventions, student progress can be monitored with notes/comments/grades added to the central database.
Of course once this happens, I will be unemployed.
If a school has a Writing Utopia, they are a third of the way to creating the ‘Holy Grail of Literacy Education’… a Literacy Utopia – a place where the Writing Utopia is complimented by equally successful Reading and Oracy Utopias. In such a school all teachers would play an equal part in Literacy education, all students reading, oracy and writing needs would be met, and they would all leave school literate.
My hope is that one day this is the reality, until then we can keep pursuing the Literacy Utopia and sharing our experiences along the way with colleagues in order that we might all get there one day.
Rebecca Geoghegan is a secondary English teacher and former whole school Literacy Lead with 15 years experience of teaching KS3, GCSE and A Level.