Language, in my entirely biased English-teacher opinion, is one of the greatest tools we have at our disposal. It can conjure up beautiful images in our minds; disgust and horrify us; incite us to act, and encourage us to be heard.
If you train students to become reflective and objective about their own work within lessons, then they should be able to replicate this during an exam. Metacognition and reflection are not new concepts to the world of teaching, but here are some simple steps that I use to develop these skills in the classroom.
1. Teach them to be convincing
One of the hardest things to do is get teenagers to sound convincing in their writing. It’s not as easy for teenagers as it is for adults because we are, quite simply, much better at lying.
We have more life experience and previous examples to base our own language on and therefore we can replicate it more effectively. Show students clips of speeches, persuasion, passion and creativity; allow them to try emulating styles, adopting certain tones and sounding like they really care about the topic (even if the subject is recycling for the third year in a row and teenagers couldn't feel less passionate about it!) They will begin to understand what sounds convincing and compelling and become more adept at ridding their own work of superfluous waffle.
2. Model the editing process
Put student work on the board and let the class watch your editing process. Ask them to help with suggestions, alternative words and sentence restructuring as you model the process.
3. Get students to edit alone
Instruct students to use synonyms, move sentences around and try to explore one image or idea in detail within their own writing. Perhaps there is a metaphor that could be extended to work more effectively throughout the piece or an area of the response that would work perfectly if expressed using hyperbole.
4. Try slow writing
This has made the biggest difference to my students' writing. There are many variations of this circulating around amongst English teachers but my favourite is David Didau’s (@DavidDidau) “slow writing”, which encourages students to carefully consider the construction of each word and sentence. I know many primary school teachers use this technique, but it is just as useful at GCSE.
My approach to slow writing is slightly different, and much lazier, than the original idea. Rather than giving prompts at the beginning, I let students start writing and then edit as I walk around. Instant marking enables rapid improvement. Firstly, I like to ban words; if students use a certain word at the start of sentences too often, then I ban it for the next five sentences. Secondly, I ask them to add in words, phrases or techniques. For example: try starting with a verb; zoom in on the character here; use a simile; show me how the character is feeling through their movements or body language.
Editing isn’t something we use only in writing; we do it on a daily basis in the way we interact and approach situations. It is merely being careful and considering the response of others. So, let’s try and teach that to our students.
Sophie Hederer is a deputy head of English in Nottingham. She tweets @engteachwbs