A touch of style
You've taught the text and heard some of the best discussions ever.
You've planned the essay and thrashed the assessment objectives to within an inch of their lives. The students know exactly what to do.
And the draft is submittedI
"Tybalt gets what was coming to him. He has been sailing close to the wind ever since the novel started and so Romeo stitches him up good and proper."
A slight exaggeration? Well, maybe. We all know that writing is a craft and that the one skill many students don't seem to possess is the capacity to persevere with their writing, to shape language in order that their ideas will have maximum impact on a specific audience.
We've heard the excuses: "I hate writing, sir"; "There are too many distractions, sir"; "We live in a world of instant gratification where patience and perseverance have been drowned in a sea of superficiality... sir." But what can we do to help our students so they become more effective communicators? At North Kesteven we've been trying out a few ideas with GCSE students.
It's a key stage 3 concept but we are starting to adopt some of the strategy learning and teaching styles higher up the school. We have just bought a projector for the department and have linked it up to a laptop.
Carefully selected paragraphs from students' writing have been projected onto the whiteboard so that the process of redrafting can be shown visually. The process of "chunking down" sounds simple, but it has been interesting to see how GCSE students still need demonstrations in how to edit out awkward repetition, how to embed a short quotation, how to analyse language, how to include lively personal response, and how to manipulate powerful punctuation. If students see the process happen, then confidence soars.
We have now started to build up a bank of resources, with extracts from a wide range of fiction and non-fiction texts, so that we can begin guided reading as well.
We've asked students to swap their draft essays with a partner and count the number of paragraphs. They then create a graph with 1-10 on the vertical axis and the number of paragraphs on the horizontal axis. Reading each paragraph carefully, they award one mark for something done well (eg use of an embedded quote, analysis of language, correct use of a semicolon), and subtract points for something done badly (eg use of a cliche, awkward use of repetition, a proper noun with a small letter).
They then plot their perceptions on a "style chart" and compare their findings: the taller the graph, the more style the essay. It makes the students think about different registers and what it means to have "style" in their writing.
Many teachers in the department have been encouraging students to send their essay drafts by email, as a way to offer instant advice. But peer marking is the thing these days, so we have taken this a stage further, organising students into differentiated "e-groups" for exchanging work in progress by email.
Some students have been brave enough to publish their creative pieces on websites such as www.abctales.com, a free service to anyone who wants to get involved with the business of writing. This has been a great way for motivated students to test out the impact of their ideas on a real audience.
Private reading for the first five minutes has been a feature of many English lessons over the years, but what about private writing? We've been giving it a go. At the start of each lesson a student suggests a topic and the group have five minutes to write their thoughts and ideas on that topic. Aware that many students have a limited vocabulary, we've been feeding them new words. At the start of the session, we introduce a new word and in the five minutes of private writing the challenge is to use it.
It's working. In the mock exams we had a "garrulous" character in a novel and a non-fiction writer who had a "succinct" style.
Anthony Dickens is head of English at North Kesteven School, Lincolnshire