The Writing Revolution in the classroom: post 1

In this series, I’m going to be looking at one aspect of The Writing Revolution per blogpost, and how I’m using it in the classroom.

PEE, PEA, PEEL, PEELAC – whatever variation you have come across, we’ve all attempted to structure students’ paragraph writing with a prescriptive template like this. For weaker students in particular, or for students with very limited time before an exam, these scaffolds are a way of ensuring that key boxes are ticked and AOs covered. Because writing is so hard, giving a rigid template helps focus students’ writing. Or does it? As many have discussed, I’m starting to see clearly that most templates, even if not quite as prescriptive as the classic PEE, box in students’ thinking in and hinder analysis.

Writing should be content-driven. It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to forget because we are too busy making sure paragraphs fit the mould. The more a student knows about a topic, the easier they will find it to write something down. Without tools and guidance however, knowledge-rich writing often resembles word vomit: a sprawling splatter of thought projected on to a page.

I have always struggled with knowing how to get students writing well. Lower or higher ability, getting students to write accurately, clearly, analytically and in a well-structured, coherent manner is probably the English teacher’s greatest challenge.

The Writing Revolution has greatly altered my thinking on how to get students writing better. Firstly, I am now much more focused on sentence-level activities than I used to be. Secondly, I have found the single paragraph outline structure to be a really liberating planning template. (Note: that may sound like an oxymoron – but bear with me).

Activity 1: fragments and sentences

I’m sure many of you have been astonished by how many of your students, even in KS4, do not write proper sentences. They may know that a sentence is a complete thought in theory: that sentences must contain a subject and a verb. But when it comes to writing a paragraph, and they’re juggling 9486526429 moving parts, the theory behind a ‘complete sentence’ escapes them. In my English department, we have been trialling The Writing Revolution’s fragment/sentence exercises that are embedded in subject content. I like them so much because they do two things at once.

  • They show students how to recognise a fragment and how to correct it.
  • They strengthen subject knowledge.

You can use them in many ways, but I have found them most useful when checking for literal understanding of a text. For instance, when reading Oliver Twist with our year 8s, we’ll want to check for plot understanding first and foremost (Dickens’ thorny syntax ensures that first-level understanding is no easy feat). Let’s imagine you’ve just read a passage from chapter 46, in which the brutal Bill Sikes violently murders Nancy despite her pleading.

In order to check that they’ve understood the story, at the same time as improving their sentence writing, you could do a quick activity like this:

Turn these fragments into sentences

  1. is angry because
  2. murders her by
  3. hits her with
  4. tries to persuade him by

This creation of proper sentences is forcing students to cement knowledge of the who and the what – the first questions that you need to ask of a text before deeply understanding it.

You could also use activities like these to go further: to think about the how and the why. Something that is really hard to understand, arguably at any age, is the concept of irony. As the master of irony, Dickens’ Oliver Twist is a good place to introduce students to the idea. After teaching them rigorously bout Dickens’ views on society and what irony means, you could use an activity such as this one that my head of department designed to check for understanding while practising sentence writing:

Extract from Chapter Two of Oliver Twist:

Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed,’ or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them.

Turn these fragments into sentences to show your understanding of why Dickens wrote Oliver Twist:

  1. uses the word ‘farmed’ to suggest that poor people were treated
  2. says that there was enough to ‘_________’ a poor person’s stomach, but what he actually means is
  3. describes the workhouse authorities as ‘________’, but
  4. describes ‘too much food’ and ‘too much clothing’ as an ‘inconvenience’ but
  5. believed that the workhouse system needed to be reformed because

[Note: in the delivery of these activities, it is important to model for the students and get them practising orally first.]

As ever, I’d love to know your thoughts on the above. I’ll be looking at another activity next time.

the-writing-revolution-1

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