Research School Network: Improving Writing Through Improving Reading Ways to improve writing in every subject

Improving Writing Through Improving Reading

Ways to improve writing in every subject

by Durrington Research School
on the

By Andy Tharby

Over recent years, the writing requirements of terminal GCSE assessments have increased in almost every subject. Even in practical subjects such as art and PE, written responses make up an extensive share of terminal assessment. On top of this, writing is not only a single, generic skill that transfers neatly from one subject to the next. To be successful at secondary school, a pupil must be to able write confidently and competently for a wide range of purposes and in a wide range of subject-specific forms and discourses.

It can be tempting to take a gung-ho approach to the problem of writing by tackling it head on. However, if schools and teachers are going to help children to improve their writing skills, we must first take a step back and consider the relationship between reading and writing. If good writers are those who read extensively, then good writers of history, mathematics or science are those who are immersed in historical, mathematical or scientific writing. As with many aspects of life, the solution to this particular problem does not look like the problem itself; instead, to help students to improve their writing, we must first look at what they are reading.

In this vein, the fifth recommendation of the EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools Guidance Report’ states that schools should Combine writing instruction with reading in every subject’. This is broken down further into the following:

1. Combining reading activities and writing instruction is likely to improve students’ skills in both, compared to a less balanced approach.

2. Reading helps students gain knowledge which leads to better writing, whilst writing can deepen students’ understanding of ideas.

3. Students should be taught to recognise features, aims and conventions of good writing within each subject.

4. Teaching spelling, grammar and punctuation explicitly can improve students’ writing, particularly when focused on meaning.

There are plenty of simple, practical measures that we can take to ensure that the texts our students read in our lessons also support them to write better within our subjects.

Relevant mentor texts’

To develop disciplinary’ writing – i.e. subject-specific writing – we must immerse students in the academic discourse of the subject through the texts they read in class. If we want students to write like historians, then they need to be exposed to the writing of historians – perhaps through journals or well-written text books. The principle is the same for every subject.

Sourcing and resourcing the main texts that underpin the curriculum is a crucial but time-intensive task. Often teachers will need to abbreviate texts or work with short extracts, especially when the writing presents considerable linguistic and structural complexity. In lessons, this reading should be scaffolded through careful questioning and comprehension activities – there is little to be gained from photocopying an academic journal from the internet and then hoping that students will summon by magic the knowledge and skill required read it. Nevertheless, the alternative, a watery diet of PowerPoint slides and the odd page or two of an aging textbook perhaps, is similarly insufficient.

Ultimately, texts should be chosen for two reasons. First, to support, deepen and reinforce a student’s knowledge of the curriculum. Second, to act as mentor texts’, a term coined by US educator Kelly Gallagher which refers to texts that students read and then attempt to imitate.

Teach imitation

Once mentor texts are in place, the next stage is to teach students how to imitate a particular disciplinary discourse. Here the teacher’s role is to help students to identify the grammatical, language and structural conventions of the subject – its language world if you like. For instance, literary analysis is written in the present tense: Dickens reveals the way that the wealthy abuse their power. Scientific writing relies on conditional clauses: if you freeze water, then it becomes a solid. These features are not usually generic; they are different in each subject and students need to understand this.

There are plenty of tasks that get students thinking about how texts are constructed within a particular subject. You might ask them to highlight and write down useful subject-specific phrases in a text. You might ask them to summarise the content of each paragraph of a text and then to consider the features of its overall structure. You might get them to identify the types of linking words and phrases that are used within the discipline. Tasks like these help students to think carefully about the how rather than the what of the text.

Ultimately, the aim is to establish a culture of borrowing or literary magpieing’ as it is sometimes known. After students have noticed and identified relevant linguistic features, they must then be given the opportunity to these into practice in their own compositions. When possible, imitative writing should follow immediately after the reading of a mentor text; this way, the connections between reading and writing are made explicit and the culture of borrowing develops into a habit and an expectation.

Exemplars and worked examples

It is also essential that CPD is designed to support teachers in developing their own command of subject-specific writing. Teachers should be helped to develop the level of competency required to compose subject-specific models and exemplars to supplement curriculum resources. Teachers should also develop the ability to break down and model the writing process to students, uncovering the metacognitive skills of planning, monitoring and evaluation as they do. This way, the instructional cycle of read, model, write develops into another embedded habit, this time a teaching habit.

The key message of this post, therefore, is that good writing always starts with good reading.

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