There are many wonderful ways we can engage students in Writing lessons from language experiences, to using meaningful contexts, to facilitating peer feedback and so on. The majority of our students might be flourishing in our Writing programmes - and kudos for that - but what about the tail end of our classes?
Some of your students don’t seem to have joined the party. They’re getting caught up at the ideas stage, confused on how to construct a sentence or left with half-finished piece of writing while their peers are sitting admiring their immaculately published work with 20 minutes to spare.
They’ve seen the party invite but perhaps don’t have the attire. And even if they do own the clothes, they don’t know which ones to wear for the occasion. Is it fancy dress? Casual? Should they wear sandals or boots?
We may not always realise it, but sometimes we need to take a step back from our own knowledge, experiences and assumptions and recognise that our students may not know things that we take for granted.
What kind of gaps might our students have?
If students have not been brought up in a print-rich environment, they may not be familiar with the topic vocabulary or organisational structures of different genres of texts. Without access to this wide range of texts, they would not build up an understanding of what a good informational text, poem or narrative story is like.
Thrust into a Writing lesson, these students won’t have the breadth of understanding required to make sense of all the Success Criteria jargon they’re being told to meet. They won’t readily make connections between text structures of different genres and their own writing.
This needs to be explicitly taught.
What can we do to help?
This is by no means a full list but here are a few clear steps you can take to make your approach to teaching Writing more accessible to your lower students:
Select 1 genre of writing to focus on and hunker-down
Before you chime up “But that’s boring. It’ll be repetitive.” - that’s exactly the point. Your struggling students need repetition in order to build their understandings and have time to develop their competence, and eventually, confidence. Give students a really solid opportunity to grasp a writing genre so they can experience the joy of success. There will be plenty of language and structural features to focus on with any genre of writing so allow yourself time to hone in on each of these for a lesson or two.
Address the purpose
Select and examine a range of reading-age-appropriate texts of your writing genre. Read them as a class and discuss their purpose. Is it to inform, persuade or entertain the reader? Students must understand that there is a reason for different pieces of writing - and it varies with each genre.
Identify the features
This is where you pull writing exemplars apart and focus on structure and language that’s specific to your genre. “This is the introduction. This is where the writer tells us what topic this whole piece of writing will be about. Here they have used a rhetorical question to provoke thought. This is where they stated their 3 reasons which support their point of view. They used the word ‘must’ to give emphasis to their point and try to convince the reader to change their mind” ...and so on.
Using the same structure and language that you identified in the previous step, demonstrate how you would construct a piece of writing. Verbalise your process “Hmm I need to hook the reader in so I’m going to start with a rhetorical question. What might my reader be able to relate to? Would ____ be a good way to start? I’m going to choose ___ because…” Verbalising the process demystifies how writers come to select the words they write on a page. It shows that writing is deliberate but also one that requires thought.
Give students the tools they need
I know there is temptation to take exemplar writing away to prevent students from straight copying it. Sometimes, having a few sentences on display can give students the runway that they need to get started. So what if for their first attempt at a piece of writing it’s not completely original? They can come up with their own amazing writing when they have developed their skills further. Co-constructed anchor charts provide a great option if you have been focusing on language features and graphic organisers provide a great framework for building an understanding of structural features.
Have a clear focus for a lesson or piece of writing
It’s easy for your struggling students to get overwhelmed by Success Criteria of things they need to demonstrate in a piece of writing. Even if the rest of your class have a full list of Success Criteria, put a limit on this for your lower students. Maybe today you just want them to use an adjective to describe a character, maybe tomorrow it will be to use an adjective to describe a setting. Make it achievable and direct your feedback towards how they met that criteria. Do not overwhelm them with improving their spelling and handwriting when you told them to focus on adjectives. Keep it simple.
These students may be well-acquainted with the feeling of failure or think that everything they do goes unnoticed because someone else did it better. Make the most of any opportunities to uplift your students when they experience success in Writing lessons. Give them a smile, high-five, sticker, let them share with their peers or an important teacher in your school. Make them feel special. If they feel low on confidence in another lesson, remind them that they’ve already proven that they can succeed.
Writing is hard. There’s a lot to think about and sometimes the mountain to climb just feels too big. Through taking a deliberate approach to teaching each genre of writing in our Writing programmes, we have the power to equip students with the skills they need to succeed and give them the boost in confidence that they need.
So, what are you waiting for? Get in there - you got this!!