Don't leave English to the English teachers

12th June 2015 at 01:00
Each subject demands its own unique writing skills. Coach your students to express themselves clearly with these simple strategies

If a student can't write, all eyes turn to the English department. Whether it's a brief in an art lesson or a write-up of a science experiment, if it isn't up to standard then those of us tasked with developing perfect-prose producers feel the heat.

There is a major problem with this attitude: it is an oversimplification of the job at hand. Teaching writing is a tricky business, so much so that it's taken me a decade as an English teacher to get the hang of it.

And that's just the parts of writing for which I should be responsible. In truth, every subject leader has to take responsibility for teaching the writing style that best suits their subject, be it evaluative writing in science or the very different challenge of historical analysis. Each subject has its labyrinth of words and subtle, generic structures. So we cannot leave it to the English teachers. We need to make each step of the writing process more visible for our students - in every subject.

It is too easy to assume that a proficient reader will automatically be a good writer. Reading and writing draw from the same wellspring of knowledge but are very different skills. We need to model skilful writing on a daily basis, in every subject area, at the same time as explaining the nuances of language choices and the many revisions that make for successful writing.

Thankfully, we can be guided by research evidence in this area. Steve Graham and Dolores Perin's seminal 2007 work, A Meta-analysis of Writing Instruction for Adolescent Students (see bit.lyWritingMetaAnalysis), identifies three steps that are essential for great writing: planning, monitoring and evaluating.

A right royal idea

The king of strategies for putting these steps into action is self-regulated strategy development (SRSD). This approach teaches a step-by-step writing process that has been shown to work in a large Education Endowment Foundation trial conducted across primary and secondary schools in Calderdale, West Yorkshire (see bit.lyCalderdaleTrial), as well as in multiple studies in the US.

With this strategy, students first develop background knowledge about their writing genre through supported discussion.

Then they memorise the key information about the genre using mnemonic tools, such as "IPEELL": I = introductory paragraph; P = points; E = exampleselaboration; E = end; L = links (connectives, openers); and L = language (wow words, genre-specific vocabulary, punctuation). The training wheels of such tools can be removed later as they become ingrained in the students' thinking.

The third step is planning: pupils make use of graphic organisers while setting themselves personal goals and charting their writing progress using self-scoring graphs (with some peer-scoring along the way, too).

Supportive structure

The reason the SRSD process is so successful is that students need clear steps and guidance to write well; SRSD presents a tight structure to make this a reality.

It also draws on the power of metacognition: that is to say, students' ability to think about their own writing. Pupils need to be constantly considering their genre, audience and the purpose of their writing, adapting their language choices to suit. The weakest writers speed through the task of writing with the minimum of hard thinking, leaving errors in their wake.

Another proven method to spark this all-important thinking is to get students talking. Collaborative writing in pairs can provide them with the opportunity to discuss their writing and make planning, revising and editing decisions. Peers don't replace the teacher, who is at the heart of shaping the process, but paired writing allows for much more individual feedback.

We need to structure and support such talk, righting any common misconceptions. But fundamentally, we must harness the power of peers in planning writing, checking it and evaluating its impact.

Unfortunately, teen minds often resist planning and drafting - both essential for great writing. They are too busy saving their precious mental energy and rushing to the finish line. Spelling and punctuation, be damned!

With my Year 9 English class, I help them fight this instinctive urge by using the checklist memory aid of the "Super 6" (capitalisation, spelling, discourse markers, range of punctuation, paragraphing and powerful vocabulary) for all writing tasks. By now they can cite the checklist verbatim, but they still need reminding to use it, alongside some careful modelling.

Once the basics have been established, you can address style. Student writing can have a deadening and repetitive rhythm. It can lack life and complexity. We need to help them by modelling and piecing together sentences.

As I said earlier, all this has to be done by every teacher, not just those in the English department. Many teachers steer clear of the intricacies of punctuation and grammar because they lack confidence, but they must all explicitly teach the nuanced rules of writing. Once these rules are internalised, our students can then move from imitation to innovation and invention.

One tip would be to do fewer writing tasks but more thoroughly: editing, revising and making considered improvements. To get students to understand great writing deeply, we need to slow down the process and make these strategies visible and habitual. To get you started, here are my three strategies for writing success:

1 Writing checklists

Like the mnemonics in the SRSD approach or the Super 6 strategy, checklists are a simple but potent way to help students remember the strategies they need to deploy when writing. Such checklists can be devised by the teacher, collaboratively as a group or individually by the student.

This can, and should, become a habit for each and every piece of writing. Checklists are free and easy to implement and they can be created for each of the three stages of great writing: planning, monitoring and evaluation.

2 Shared writing

In my view, there is no more powerful strategy for teaching writing. Put simply, "shared writing" describes the act of the teacher modelling a piece of writing for the students.

Crucially, it allows the teacher to explain what they're doing as they write, making metacognitive thinking concrete and real. This process can make errors feel normal (we all make mistakes when we write), and can make expert writing more visible.

We can actively involve students in the decision-making process by asking them precise questions, ramping up their motivation and engagement in the process of writing.

3 Gallery critique

This strategy, borrowed from Ron Berger, an American teacher and prominent educationalist, harnesses the power of assessment for learning and feedback. It demands that the writing of the students in the group is displayed "gallery style".

Essentially, it draws upon the power of peers to give meaningful feedback. Like any potent strategy it requires scaffolding. Berger has indicated that peer feedback should be "kind (but honest), helpful and specific".

Helping students to give one another precise goals to improve their writing is strongly supported by the research evidence.

Alex Quigley is director of research at Huntington School in York. He blogs at and you can find him on Twitter at @HuntingEnglish

What else?

Use these writing frames to develop secondary students' composition skills.


Teach your students how to employ descriptive writing to enliven boring passages.


Mastering homophones, grammar and subordinate clauses to produce perfect prose.


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