Take a closer look
Themes of love, violence and death in Romeo and Juliet may have the timeless power to appeal to all my classes - including my foundation set boys - but for some reason subordinate clauses had never really captured their imagination in the same way. The mere mention of the words "clause structure analysis" had always guaranteed the glazing over of pupils' eyes in my English lessons. Yet our pupils' ability to manipulate sentence structures for effect in a clear, controlled way has become integral to their success at writing for both key stages 3 and 4.
Beginning last September as head of English at Kingsbury High School (an inner-London comprehensive), I discovered that pupils there, like most in the UK, were far stronger at reading than writing. I was keen to redress this balance, looking for teaching methods that could have an impact on the quality of pupil writing while actually being inspiring. Guided writing has been the key.
We began with a department audit of pupils' strengths and weaknesses in writing, soon realising that our pupils' main difficulties were all at sentence level. Regardless of ability, pupils rarely varied from the basic subject-verb-object structure. Weaker pupils were tending to link clauses with "and", "so" or "but", unaware of the key differences between speech and writing. The more able could select words for particular effects but seemed less conscious of the power of the position of words and the length of sentences.
Guided work acts as a bridge between whole-class teaching and independent work, giving a small group of pupils focused and intense teacher time, while the rest of the class work independently. Each lesson the teacher rotates the group so that over the course of several lessons everyone in the class has worked in a guided session with the teacher. It aims to support the active learning of complex strategies that pupils are not confident of using on their own. Difficulties experienced by pupils can be tackled in a spirit of constructive evaluation of writing choices. More traditional approaches to teaching writing put teacher intervention and feedback too late in the process - it is not until after the work has been finished and marked that pupils receive teacher comments, with the result that advice fails to offer support when it is actually needed.
With the head of KS3, Kate Vicars-Miles, and other members of the department, I put together a guided writing pilot across groups of all abilities at KS3-4. Lessons focused on how to select between simple, compound and complex sentences for various effects, with whole-class teaching introducing the necessary knowledge and guided groups supporting pupils' individual understanding and practical use of the techniques.
John, one of our able Year 9 pupils, demonstrates how successful the guided sessions were. While his first piece, written during the first lesson of the pilot, was effective at word level, his sentence structure was less mature, relying heavily on a repeated subject-verb-object sequence:
"It was a cold bitter night in November; my candle was nearly burnt out, the light in the cabin flickered. The rain pattered against the panes. I collected my instruments from the corner of the room. The door burst open, the wind drove the candle to its death. The eyes of the creature opened, it breathed hardI" Written four weeks after this example, John's opening to a story entitled "The Day the Clocks Stopped", reveals a new level of sophistication:
"Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. Silence. The hands on the oversized grandfather had stopped, the brass hands pointed to midnight. As silence listened to silence, a small boy walked by, the huge towering clock glaring down. The boy moved very slowly, his hands out to find his way, his eyes shut. Petrified. All sounds from the house had stopped, the dripping tap, the whistle of the wind beneath the oak door. Swaying trees stood strong and rigid outside. A small green electric light illuminated the numbers: 12 o'clock and zero seconds.
"Dumb watch battery, must be flat," cursed the boy, ripping it from his wrist. Little did he know that he would be stuck in this moment of time forever. Forever. Forever. Forever."
Following our autumn-term pilot, we are certain that pupils would not have developed their skills so quickly and confidently from whole-class teaching. Comparison "control group" lessons where we taught the same strategies through whole-class methods showed much slower improvement; pupils were less keen to take risks and writing often remained in the form of a hurried stream of consciousness.
During the pilot both pupils and teachers felt their confidence growing.
One member of the department said she felt she had taught an "Ofsted-type excellent lesson" for the first time, and had realised how to significantly improve pupil writing through more than picking up on technical accuracy and pointing out to pupils that next time they ought to add in things like adjectives.
In written pupil evaluations, many mentioned how positive they had found the extra teacher attention, and teachers noticed a general improvement in pupil motivation and behaviour.
Pupil comments also showed a level of sophisticated understanding not previously held by our pupils in Year 9: "I knew there were different types of sentences (complex, compound and simple) but I didn't know how to use them properly. Now I have learned they really do make a difference to your writing, for instance short sentences to build up tension, which I never really recognised before." When asked "Was there anything about the lessons that you thought could have been better?", several pupils responded with answers such as "More lessons like this, so everyone can always have a chance to see how much better their work can be".
Perhaps this is where the real strength of guided writing lies - it gives both pupils and teachers a concrete, tangible picture of progress and development in a supportive and dynamic context. Who would have believed that teaching the subordinate clause could be such an inspiring and liberating experience?
Rachel Kitley is head of English at Kingsbury High School, Brent
Guided writing tips
* Make your first experience positive - pick students who will work well independently. Organise cover so there are two teachers in the room for groups who need supervision, or speak to your LEA literacy consultant - our Brent consultant supported lessons.
* Remember that, while guided sessions are new to secondary school teachers, pupils are used to them from primary schools.
* Set out the room so that independent workers sit around the outside in one large horseshoe, with the guided group in the middle. That way every pupil faces you.
* Keep guided sessions intensive and short - about 20 minutes in length.
* Use the plenary for both guided groups and independent writers to share work.
* End lessons by asking pupils to write down three things they learned that lesson. This makes learning explicit and pupils leave the room feeling positive.