Turning the ‘iced water’ into a warm bath!

Turning the iced water into a warm bath: support for low-ability students writing

Rebecca Geoghegan shares her approaches to supporting low-ability writers.

Being asked to ‘write’ can be daunting for even the most confident and accurate of writers: at times we all struggle to think of something interesting and memorable to write.  However, if your struggle is coupled with low literacy levels, then you are very likely to find the instruction to ‘write’ like a bucket of ice water.  Below are some suggested strategies that have worked for my low-ability students in the past.

1)  Streamlining

Low ability writers need to concentrate on ‘the basics’ in relation to the GCSE assessment objectives for writing (A05 and A06).  I would advise moving away from the wider AOs (at GCSE) and breaking these into a smaller ‘skills set’ that have to be mastered in order to reach ‘average’ (this equates to around half marks for each question).  For example, A05 requires students to ‘organise information and ideas, using structural and grammatical features to support coherence and cohesion in texts’.  Many students (and some teachers!) will struggle to understand exactly what this is asking them to do, and whilst I agree they should be aware of what the assessment objectives are, low-ability students would benefit from knowing ‘what I have to do’ in relation to an objective.  For A05 that would include using simple, compound and complex sentences, using paragraphs and so on.  Once the writing ‘skills set’ has been created from your analysis of A05 and A06, you and the students will have a very clear list upon which to base your lesson content.

2)  Big Questions

Once I have the ‘skills set’ available, I then use this to plan my lessons. I know that my class is working on sentences.  Instead of a traditional learning objective – students can very rarely tell me what the words ‘learning objective’ mean – I use a ‘Big Lesson Question’ linked to the ‘skills set’.  For example, it could be ‘Can I use simple and compound sentences accurately and effectively in my writing?’  This question can then be referred to throughout the lesson to assess progress and can lead into the plenary at the end of the lesson where students might be asked to answer the question.

3)  Media texts

Students respond well to a variety of media texts – don’t just think images but trailers and short films too.  Media texts can provide some interesting starting points for ideas.  Many students struggle with getting a ‘good’ idea and this can be supported greatly through the use of unusual and unique media texts.  In taking away the barrier of reading (which is often an issue for those with low writing levels) students can be free to discuss their ideas about the media texts.

4)  Talk for Writing

Many primary schools use the Talk for Writing approach, pioneered by Pie Corbett.  Its central focus is on talking before writing.  Whilst low ability writers might not have the writing ‘skills set’, they often do have some amazing ideas.  In giving them the opportunity to talk about their ideas with you and their classmates, they can begin to shape their idea into something that could become a great piece of writing.  Think-pair-share is a good starting point. The use of mini-whiteboards is an excellent place for students to record initial thoughts, the ‘wipeability’ of the boards means that they aren’t tied to their ideas, and they can change over and over again in this initial stage.

5)  Planning

Low-ability writers often fall into the trap of writing without planning first.  Recent mock papers I marked for a year 11 cohort revealed that only around 10 out of 60 students had planned their writing before starting. Though we might tell them to plan, I am not always sure that they understand how to do it. I feel that if we spent longer actually ‘teaching how to plan’ then students might plan more effectively.  Time spent showing them different methods of planning and discussing which might work best and why could be a useful starting point.

6)  Marking on the move

This has become particularly popular in secondary English classrooms, not just to reduce marking loads but to support the low ability writers.  In addressing misconceptions almost immediately, teachers can begin a dialogue with an individual, group or whole class about what needs to be addressed and provide any necessary teaching ‘on the spot’.

7)  Chunking

With low-ability writing skills, often comes low-level concentration.  Students need to build their ‘stamina’ for completing independent extended writing.  In my experience, the best way to do this is to build up slowly, from writing two sentences to a paragraph to two paragraphs to two sides.  Along the way, they will need the ‘skills set’ to scaffold their writing and ensure that they have met the assessment objectives.  Some teachers choose to use a checklist for each paragraph, a writing frame or similar resource.  Although these may be useful for a time, it is important that students don’t become too reliant on any one resource else their work begins to sound formulaic.

Writing for some can be a barrier to communication and for some students it can prevent them expressing some wonderful ideas.  In thinking carefully about the structure of lessons, assessment language and processes, and resources, we can hopefully begin to change that barrier into a powerful weapon for our low-ability writers.

Catapult is a new series specifically aimed at supporting and motivating low-ability students. Find out more at www.oxfordsecondary.co.uk/catapult.