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Words fail me

Researchers have pinpointed why so many white working class boys start to slide: poor writing skills undermine their confidence. Heather Nicholson reports on attempts to tackle the problem

The "standstill boys" are a well-known phenomenon in secondary schools.

They turn up, they don't cause trouble, they don't contribute a lot to lessons and they don't make much progress. A lot of negatives there.

They are also often white working-class boys, which is not a negative, but it is not necessarily a positive either. Generally, their parents will not have experienced tertiary education, but their social background may have nothing to do with why they are lagging behind: the answer could be that they are not being stretched in the classroom.

One of the reasons that has been identified to explain why white working-class boys disappear into an educational black hole is that their writing skills fall behind what they are capable of achieving. These are able students, but students who are drifting, who arrive in secondary school and by the end of Year 7 are underachieving because they have done nothing since they arrived.

Being able to write coherently and confidently across the curriculum is essential if these students are going to close the significant gap between themselves and the high achievers by the time they are ready to sit their GCSEs. The key stage 3 English figures for 2002 show that 28 per cent of white boys receiving free school meals in inner-London achieved level 5.

The comparable figure for white boys not receiving free school meals was 59 per cent. It is not credible that such a marked difference can be blamed on factors outside the school in the case of every pupil.

The pupils' successful transition to individual writing depends crucially on teacher intervention at the different stages of the writing process. The nature of the teacher's intervention is a key area of interest and development in improving boys' performance in writing.

There are five schools taking part in research being conducted by the Department for Education and Skills, each one choosing its own way of tackling the white working-class boys' writing project. The department's aim is to find out what can be done to energise writing and to construct an audit of where the weaknesses are. The audit will be at the heart of future initiatives on how writing should be taught and taught well. The issue is to make sure capable boys who are falling behind reach their potential.

Teaching good writing is about empowerment.

How realistic is it to stop the slide? Justin Smith, head of English at the Central Foundation boys' school in Islington, north London, has been piloting a sustained effort to do just that since the start of the autumn term. He chose the top set in Year 9, identifying seven underachievers who fitted the profile of able boys who were not making good enough progress.

The project raised some boys' writing level from 5 to 7 and others from 5 to 6. But he cautions there is no magic wand.

"It takes a lot of work and commitment from the boys as well as staff," he says. "My experience shows that the boys enjoyed the effort and are now more confident writers. What I wanted to do was make sure the top end was being stretched. These are boys who lack confidence in writing at length.

"I informed all the boys early on that we were working towards a particular project in writing but did not say there were seven who were being given special attention. They all took pride in being chosen for the project.

Typically, they should be at level 6 or 7 but some were just achieving level 5. The class is a multi-cultural mix of Afro-Caribbean, Chinese, Turkish and Middle-Eastern.

"I integrated the work as much as possible into the Year 9 Sats preparation, giving extra emphasis to writing over and above what we would normally have done, to make it more explicit to the boys themselves. I deliberately did not give support activities to ethnic boys partly because it wasn't practical and also because we wanted to find out how well the white working class pupils could do.

"I flagged up a triplet of writing objectives: imagine, explore, entertain; inform, explain, describe; persuade, argue, advise; analyse, review, comment. Using this framework they could learn how to create good writing practice.

"The mnemonic "tape" - text, audience, purpose and effect - was repeated time and again until they understood its significance and what I was asking of them. In a couple of weeks I had the whole class to a stage whereby I could take any text, something from a Sunday supplement to James Joyce's Ulysses, put it on a whiteboard, and they could perform a quick analysis themselves using tape.

"Reading and writing are inextricably linked, if they can perform tape analysis on any text, they can understand stylistic conventions and introduce those classic techniques into their own work.

"When we started to look at writing, we used schemes of work that began with reading and moved into writing, analysing techniques such as tentative language. It is important to make the work relevant to their lives. For instance, in one lesson I set them the task of writing a leaflet to persuade other students to support a charity of their choice. They had a limited time in which to do it but we had already analysed a pamphlet about the Salvation Army so they knew what was expected of them.

"Another important element in this project was shared writing. While the rest of the class was on the word processor, the white working-class group engaged in a round table discussion about how to approach a particular piece of writing. Guided writing is effective because everyone was making decisions about revision in real time and they discovered that the best writing has lots of crossings out. They need to get away from the idea that to be good, writing must have no red ink on it.

"We also did a lot of analysis as a way to activate prior knowledge which helps the teacher to benchmark where to start. There is nothing more frustrating for students than for a teacher to say things they already know. In plenary session they judged each other's writing. We asked, is this a successful piece of writing? Why? These shared reflections were significant and helped the students to be more confident writers.

"Another element they found helpful was self-marking. As they learned how to embody the stylistic conventions of the triplets into their writing and followed the tape format, they were able to see where they had gone right or wrong in their own approach to a piece of writing.

"In one term we have discovered that white working-class boys who are under-achieving can make important strides on the way to bridge the gap between themselves and the high achievers. The boys now know the criteria for achieving level 7 in writing. Now they know how and why."

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