Spelling and grammar aren’t everything in secondary teaching

Don’t assume that equipping pupils with a basic competence in grammar, spelling and handwriting will give them the tools they need to flourish in every secondary subject, says Alex Quigley
20th March 2020, 12:04am
Spelling & Grammar In Secondary School

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Spelling and grammar aren’t everything in secondary teaching

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/spelling-and-grammar-arent-everything-secondary-teaching

Around 85 per cent of the world’s population can now write and, in England, that figure is much higher. Yet, we too easily assume that our pupils’ exhibiting a basic competence in writing gives them all the tools to flourish in every classroom, the exam hall and in every aspect of their future lives.

That assumption is wrong. In primary school, writing remains part of the fleet of assessments in Year 6 but progress has plateaued. In 2019, only 78 per cent of pupils leaving primary school attained the “expected standard” in writing (the same as in 2018), despite its being self-assessed by teachers - a process that is typically more lenient than standardised assessments.

Once pupils get to secondary school, teachers in many subjects are not well trained in teaching writing in their subject discipline.

It’s not just in England that we have issues. Recent research from the US, from Steve Graham - a true writing research guru - titled “Changing How Writing is Taught”, reveals the issues in teaching practice that can make the difference between average and excellent writing.

Though there were some positive findings, the research review found that many teachers “overemphasised teaching basic writing skills (grammar, handwriting and spelling) while placing little emphasis on teaching…critical writing processes, such as planning and revising”.

This is not to say that transcription (spelling, handwriting, etc) is not important, but a complex balance in the teaching of writing is required, which invariably involves the need for teacher training and curriculum time.

So, what should we be doing? In the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) publication, Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools, the helpful “Simple View of Writing Model” is a great starting point for the balanced teaching of writing. It has three main strands:

  • Transcription: spelling, typing and handwriting.
  • Composition: ideas, words and sentences.
  • Executive function: planning, motivating and reviewing.

In addition, both the EEF guidance and the Graham study emphasise the importance of going beyond filling in truncated worksheets and single-sentence responses in secondary classrooms to instead focus on more sophisticated disciplinary writing.

For example, how you plan an argument in history clearly requires disciplinary writing decisions, such as paraphrasing or quoting sources, alongside vocabulary selections that attend history concepts, such as chronology, continuity and causation. A history essay shares some planning parallels with English but also crucial differences.

If we are to support every pupil to move from being competent to confident writers in each subject and phase, we need to take time to explore the evidence and nuanced detail about how pupils need to develop as disciplinary writers.

Alex Quigley is the national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation. He is a former teacher and author of the upcoming Closing the Reading Gap

This article originally appeared in the 20 March 2020 issue under the headline “There’s much more to good writing than meets the eye”

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