Give struggling writers the tools to tell their story

14th September 2018 at 00:00
Primary pupils faced with a blank page often don’t know how to begin, but an approach imported from the US can develop the cognitive, metacognitive and self-regulatory skills that underlie successful writing, says literacy director Megan Dixon

I can be an excitable person, particularly when I find interesting things in education. But I don’t usually get so excited that I fall off my chair. However, a recent study into teaching writing made me do just that.

I had been sitting in my classroom running through the newly published reports from the Education Endowment Foundation when I came across the IPEELL (which stands for introduction, points, examples, end, links, language) Calderdale study, an evaluation trial of a strategy for teaching writing to children in Year 6.

It’s part of my job to know about such things, so I jumped in. The study paired self-regulated strategy development (SRSD), an approach that has yielded positive results in the US, with exciting visits to local places. It was designed to give the children the cognitive, affective and metacognitive skills of writing as well as something to write about. And it had reported an effect size of 0.74, adding an average of nine months’ extra progress to the attainment of the children who were involved.

I was amazed. So amazed that I had to tell someone. And in my rush to get to the head’s office to do just that, I fell off my chair.

Yes, the security of the trial had a rating of two padlocks out of a possible five, meaning that the findings were only moderately secure, but this was still exciting. Anything with an average impact that big was surely an absolute no-brainer, right? We decided to find out more.

Originally developed by educational psychologists Karen Harris and Steve Graham in the US as an approach to teach writing to students with learning difficulties, SRSD is a way of teaching writing that recognises how hard writing is.

It is designed to help developing writers learn how to juggle the demands of the cognitive side of the writing process (composing, audience, purpose, letter, word, spelling and grammar), the metacognitive elements of thinking about the process of writing (planning, goal-setting, monitoring and evaluating), and the emotional, self-regulatory, affective processes that can lead pupils to avoid putting pen to paper.

Own goals

Pupils are encouraged to internalise not only the structures and features of different genres but also strategies to maintain their focus and motivation. Like all good teaching processes, it aims to make the implicit thought processes of a writer explicit.

This approach really makes sense. Think of a pupil who writes well. They can probably write at length and organise their ideas cohesively, using interesting and well-phrased language. They are likely to have clear, legible handwriting and accurate spelling, using language that is grammatically fit for purpose. These pupils seem to always know what to do, to be resilient about the task in hand and to be able to produce something that does what it needs to.

The self-regulatory skills of personal goal-setting, self-instructing, self-monitoring and self-reinforcement are critical abilities that an effective writer possesses. An effective writer sets themselves goals (in contrast to the teacher setting learning objectives), understands the steps in the process they can use, manages their emotions when things get hard and has strategies to overcome their anxieties and frustrations. They can monitor their writing for effectiveness, checking whether the piece is achieving its aim, and they can keep themselves on task, reinforcing and redirecting their efforts when needed.

In contrast, less effective writers might be defeated by the task before they have even started. Without considerable support, they might struggle to have anything to say, lack resilience to finish, and be unclear, confused and unstructured in their writing.

As Harris, Graham and colleagues explain, in their book Powerful Writing Strategies for All Students, many young people will look at a blank page and stop there, not knowing how to start, what to do or how to complete the task. Once they start to experience difficulties with the writing process, their own self-belief and expectations about being able to complete the task can lower, resulting in feelings of helplessness. They quickly lose their agency as writers who have a voice, something powerful to say and the skills to say it.

Know your audience

All the cognitive, metacognitive and affective processes that we use when writing are explicitly taught through the six-stage SRSD process of teaching. Every aspect effective writers draw on is discussed and developed with a strong emphasis on the purpose and audience of the writing. Acronyms are introduced to help pupils remember both the process and the precise details of the genre, and they are supported to evaluate their own writing, alongside the writing of others, collaboratively.

Every part of the process is modelled by the teacher, then scaffolded through collaborative whole-class writing, building towards each pupil taking ownership for every part of the process, with an independently produced piece of writing.

The teachers involved in the UK trial had been guided through the process by an American trainer with adaptations to ensure the approach was suited to a UK context. I discovered that the training was also available through an online course from the US and we decided to pilot it for ourselves.

I assembled a small group of interested teachers and we completed the HILL for Literacy course over several weeks, working out how to translate the strategy into our own classrooms. We read the research, watched the videos, explored the texts and lesson plans together, and considered what it would look like in practice. Then we got started.

In our lessons, pupils now work collaboratively with teachers to learn how to write, starting with building background knowledge, discussing examples and developing an understanding of the features, purpose and style of the genre to be written. The pupils are encouraged to set themselves goals for their writing and consider strategies for overcoming the difficulties they will face. They are encouraged to internalise not only the structures and features of different genres but also strategies to maintain focus and motivation.

Through the following stages, the teacher explicitly models and guides the pupils to collaboratively plan, write, monitor and evaluate their work, building to independently produced pieces.

The IPEELL Calderdale study added an extra dimension to the six-stage model. After the initial stages where the pupils explore the genre (developing their background knowledge) and set themselves goals, they are taken on a school visit or engage in a memorable experience directly linked to the subject. This ensures they can write from personal experience and provides a strong purpose to their writing.

Adaptable model

The strength of this method of teaching writing is that it can be used for any subject or topic. We have adapted the model to a range of high-quality children’s literature and linked it to other curriculum subjects the class might be studying at the time – for example, history, geography or science.

So, when a class is studying the Romans in history, or animals and their habitats, a range of genres can be taught and built around the topic and the school trip linked to that topic. For example, a theme about animals and their habitats included reading picture books by Jackie Morris and the National Geographic Kids magazine, and a trip to the zoo provided powerful experiences for a Year 4 class to write about. Over six weeks, each child completed a traditional story, an animal fact file, a non-chronological piece for the class magazine and a piece or persuasive writing about why we should (or shouldn’t) have zoos.

Adopting this model of teaching has certainly encouraged us to think very carefully about how we support our pupils to take ownership of the writing process for themselves and how we approach the teaching of writing. Over the past two years, it has been a central focus in our drive to improve standards in writing (along with an emphasis on developing handwriting and spelling, teachers’ grammatical knowledge and more feedback-less marking) and the outcomes across our trust have been impressive – one school has improved its writing outcomes by over 60 per cent.

The Education Endowment Foundation has funded a larger effectiveness trial of IPEELL (the UK version of SRSD) and we will need to wait to see if the process continues to have the same astounding effect. Whatever the outcome, I will continue to use this structure. It is not a programme, not a scheme – simply a freely available set of processes to help teachers and pupils learn and apply the skills that effective writers use. A truly inspirational example of putting evidence into practice.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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