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Positive pen power

Teaching writing is an active process asking for a workshop approach, insists Geoff Barton

There was a GCSE English exam paper a few years ago that presented pupils with the first page of Dickens's Bleak House. Their task was to "write an atmospheric opening of your own novel". It is good to have high expectations, but even the hyper-productive Mr Dickens might have blanched at being asked to emulate a classic novel in 45 minutes.

On the other hand, this is the way many of us in the past taught our pupils to write; or rather did not teach them. We tended to trot out short stories and other exemplar texts, read and perhaps analyse them, and then ask pupils to write one of their own. Often we were disappointed when pupils' work fell short of our hopes. Suddenly, we realised, we were not teaching writing at all. We were assuming that something mystical would happen in the transfer from the reading process, with perhaps a few bullet-points thrown in by way of hints ("remember to build a strong atmosphere").

Feedback from the key stage 2 National Literacy Strategy shows its remarkable impact on pupils' reading and knowledge about language. My eight-year-old son pointed at some words on the cereal packet the other morning and said: "Daddy, is that a compound noun?" I had to reach for my David Crystal.

But the research also highlights a lack of similar progress in pupils' writing skills, especially their ability to write at length. The KS3 Framework for English is designed in part to address this, providing a sharp reminder of the way we have emphasised assessing pupils' writing, but paying scant attention to teaching writing skills.

Pupils are often asked to write too much. They also spend a lot of time in various subjects writing pointlessly. They copy out of textbooks or they make notes (with insufficient guidance) or they are asked to write reports, evaluations, stories and articles, usually with little to support or structure their ideas. The result is an output of writing that would be successful if simply weighed, but in quality is often dire.

It is time to improve writing standards across the curriculum. The English department has a central role but we need to be careful. George Sampson's 1921 adage still holds true: "Every teacher in English is a teacher of English." We need our scientists to teach more explicitly the writing conventions of scientific reports; our humanities teachers to develop models and approaches that will lead to better explanation texts; our technology colleagues to give focused advice on how to write evaluations. English teachers, broadening the range of writing our pupils encounter, need to help pupils identify the specific language features of articles, personal writing, explanations, leaflets, literary criticism and discursive essays, stories, poems, and all the other genres we aim to cover.

This means being clearer in our own minds about what the language features are, not by reducing every text to an off-the-shelf formula (the best texts in many genres often push the conventions to their limits) but by taking a more focused approach to teaching writing. The key is to work in small units.

Start with a clear focus on the type of writing you are working on. If it is the literature essay in Year 9, then pupils need to think about the purpose and audience. They need to reflect on how formal the tone should be. They will need to consider how often to use the pronoun "I" - and possible ways of avoiding it - and the convention of writing in the present tense. They will need to explore how to structure an essay around the principle of "assertion - quotation - explanation", and how to pay close attention to the language of a text. Moving between ideas will lead to talking about connectives such as "also", "however", "similarly", "although". To assume that they will somehow absorb good stylistic practice from reading i self-deluding. We need actively to teach these things, and for me the biggest surprise of the KS3 Framework materials has been their active nature.

It is not a case of presenting pupils with a model essay and saying "let's count how often the writer uses the passive voice". Instead there is a vibrant workshop mentality at work. Pupils learn to develop an appropriate style by experimenting with a range of styles. They might initially write about the text as if they were writing a letter to a friend. How would their vocabulary differ if it were a letter to a stranger? How would the mode of address be if it were an essay? Who is the audience? How would the essay sound if it were in the past tense? Throughout, pupils write small sample sections of work, discuss the effect, reflect on how well it works, and sharpen their understanding of the expected conventions.

Grammar is embedded in a holistic approach to writing: pupils learn the points of grammar they need in order to write better. Most important, they can watch teachers writing, seeing at first hand the kind of decisions we are constantly making as we write. This is a vital part of the process.

Comments from the pilot authorities have inevitably included concerns about work level and aspects of the resources. But most of those involved have also been amazed at the way a new teaching methodology is emerging that enhances the way we have taught in the past. It appears to have a particularly motivating effect on boys who, armed with their mini-whiteboards and charged by the quick-fire starter activities, are enjoying a style of English teaching that has quickened the pace and increased the rewards. Although not directly involved in the pilot authorities' work, I have been encouraged by the way my own pupils have responded to the National Literacy Strategy approaches I have tried out and by the enthusiasm for such approaches of many English teachers.

The dominant literature diet of traditional English teaching served some pupils well, but it could also prove rarefied and limiting, and often led us to neglect teaching writing skills. Not any more. Enough carping from the sidelines: let us teach pupils more explicitly the kind of skills they need.

Geoff Barton is deputy head of Thurston community college, Suffolk and is a member of the English Association. He is author of 'Writing to 14' (Oxford University Press). E-mail:


* Let pupils see you writing, using an overhead projector or board.

* As you write, articulate the decisions you are having to make about style and content - pupils need to see the writing process at work.

* Involve pupils in discussing the effects of a sample of writing - and then change some features in response to their comments.

* Show pupils models in appropriate genres. Then get them to rewrite the opening paragraph of the model, changing tense, audience, sentence style, and so on. Passive analysis needs to become active reworking of texts.

* Get pupils working in small units initially - writing and then reworking an opening sentence, then an opening paragraph. Focus on quality rather than quantity of writing.

* Gradually, as pupils develop confidence about style, let them write more. This is part of the necessary shift from dependence to independence that all new writers need.

* Do not get fixated on grammatical features: pupils need to know the appropriate bits of grammar for their writing, not how to spot dangling participles at 50 yards.

* Keep talking about the effect of every linguistic decision you make with a class in your shared writing: this is how pupils will become more reflective and more confident in their own writing.

* Keep the range of writing wide - pupils need to be able to write leaflets and factsheets, as well as atmospheric story openings and poems.

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