Research School Network: Writing Lessons from the Virtual Realm David Windle, Assistant Head teacher, Charles Dickens Primary School

Writing Lessons from the Virtual Realm

David Windle, Assistant Head teacher, Charles Dickens Primary School

by London South Research School
on the

Like many schools, at the end of March we transformed from being a primary school to a TV channel, asking our pupils to tune in each day to guzzle their lessons. In all subjects this presented certain challenges and English was no exception. In the classroom, teaching children to write is a complex business, with many elements needing to fall into place at the right moment. However, without a classroom, without a room full of brains to generate ideas, or the chance to model a tricky paragraph or give instant feedback, teaching children to write became even more complex.

Three questions emerged:

1. Without a teacher to cajole them, why wouldn’t they switch off at the first hint of boredom?
2. Without a class to discuss ideas with, would their imaginations awaken?
3. Without an audience for their work, why would they bother putting pen to paper?

The EEF Rapid Evidence Assessment on remote learning stated that if children had access to high quality lessons, live or recorded, with clear scaffolding and modelling which built on their prior learning, then their education would barely suffer.

The challenge, therefore, became to transfer all the normal practices of the classroom to the virtual world – distilling them to their most potent form to fit the far more condensed space of a 15-minute film. This distillation process produced some interesting results which will, without doubt, inform our teaching of writing back in real life. 

While none of these realisations may seem surprising, it is worth reflecting upon how the familiar can be refreshed and refocussed under changed conditions.

Writing Moments

Following three months of virtual school, it has never been clearer that a writing unit is a chain of writing moments’ each one building on the last. This chain of writing moments, while often leading to a longer piece of writing, led children to new ways of thinking. Each moment provided a crystal-clear opportunity for children to think through writing, to think as a writer. The enforced distance between teacher and pupil somehow drew each child’s unique thought process into the light. Planning chains of writing moments, each one a new piece of thinking, is certainly applicable in real-life school. While the end product matters, it seems less important than the thinking which has occurred to produce it.

In Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009), Daniel Willingham suggests that lessons should be planned in terms of what the student is likely to think about’. As writing is the culmination of thought, it seems essential to ensure that a unit of writing is structured around opportunities for thinking as opposed to a sequence of writing tasks.

It also became apparent that these writing moments emerged best when particular elements were present and that, in the most successful moments, every one of these elements was modelled by the teacher.

Engaging the imagination

For the children to see a text or story as relevant, the teachers had to model imaginative engagement by, for example, jumping into role and acting out scenes, going out on location and filming news reports, creating their own versions of stories during lessons or simply by expressing their own thoughts and feelings around a particular part of a text. Crucially, these pieces of engagement had to form part of the writing moment – they had to begin the thinking process which would culminate in a piece of writing. Attention grabbers had to be purposeful.

Modelling thought, talk and writing

Once the child’s imagination was engaged it needed a focus – a clear writing moment, drawn from a specific point in the text, to aim for, be it anything from a snippet of a diary to a paragraph of a story to a pair of explanatory sentences. This moment could then be built towards, with the teacher modelling thought and talk, before honing that talk towards its written form and, finally, modelling that writing live, rearticulating the thought and talk as they did so. The re-articulation of the process explicitly demonstrated how the thought and talk coalesce in the instant of writing.

Creating an audience

Lastly, giving the children a chance to share their work through filming themselves performing, sending it to a peer or celebrating it in a weekly whole-class message, meant they were always keen to impress.

There is nothing new in any of this, but the formula is clear: choose a good book, plan a chain of writing moments, engage the imagination, model the thinking, talking and writing within each of those moments and give children a chance to share. Hey presto – everyone’s a writer!

Future articles will expand upon the three themes highlighted here – engagement, modelling, audience – to help hone those writing moments.

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