Using evidence properly
These four decisions underpin evidence-informed practice
by Shotton Hall Research School
The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades
Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler (Foreword by Doug Lemov).
The Writing Revolution (TWR) introduces a model known as the Hochman Method. This aims to ‘turn weak writers into strong communicators’. Hochman and Wexler argue that the challenges students face in terms of their writing are not insurmountable, and that TWR can make a dramatic difference. They present techniques that match students’ needs and provide them with targeted feedback. Their strategies are intended to teach subject content as much as writing; therefore, I believe they are extremely valuable in any classroom.
This book made me reflect on the fact that as teachers we often assign writing tasks but don’t explicitly teach students how to execute them. While we may use exemplars, WAGOLLS/WABOLLS or do some modelling, we tend not to go ‘back to basics’ enough by teaching fundamental written language skills, starting at sentence level. We mustn’t assume that students can simply pick up writing skills just because they are able readers. Hochman and Wexler want to ‘take the mystery out of learning to write well.’ They break the writing process down into manageable chunks which are practiced repeatedly.
Two key takeaways from TWR that have influenced my teaching practice:
TWR is based upon six core principles. The second, ‘sentences are the building blocks of all writing’, is that which has influenced my teaching the most. Various sentence-level activities such as sentence expansion exercises are presented in this book; here I will share the two which have had the greatest impact on my own classroom practice.
1. Because, but, so
The teacher provides a sentence stem and asks students to expand it three ways, using the conjunctions because, but and so. This enables students to see sentences as constantly expandable. It provides challenge as it requires students to think critically and analytically about lesson content. It makes them engage in far more specific and focused thinking than if we just asked them to respond to an open-ended question, and it enables us to formatively assess their understanding more precisely. ‘Because’ explains something; ‘but’ indicates a change of direction; ‘so’ prompts analysis of cause and effect.
This activity can be used at any stage of a lesson and requires little planning. I recently tried it as an exit ticket with my mixed ability year 11 class and I was really impressed by students’ responses. At the end of a revision lesson analysing Hitler’s rise to Chancellorship, I gave students the sentence stem ‘Hitler became Chancellor…’ and asked them to expand it using ‘because, but, so.’ Students appeared really engaged by their thinking being deepened in this way, and many were keen to share their sentences verbally with the class. We had responses such as:
Hitler became Chancellor because Hindenburg and von Papen underestimated him.
Hitler became Chancellor but he wasn’t satisfied with this and wanted more power.
Hitler became Chancellor so Germany was a step closer to becoming a one-party state.
In Tom Sherrington’s blog on ‘Think, Pair, Share’, he uses the analogy that it is the ‘washing hands of learning’ (something small and simple yet can have a huge impact in the classroom). In Kristian Shank’s blog on TWR, he proposes that ‘because, but, so’ is the ‘washing hands of writing’. Having tried it in my lessons I can only agree with this given its simplicity and effectiveness.
2. Getting students to process what they’ve read: Kernel sentences
The second technique which I have found particularly effective is a sentence expansion activity built upon a kernel sentence (a bare-bones, brief- but complete- sentence). Students read some information and then make notes using questions such as who, what, when, where, why, how? They then turn their notes into an expanded sentence, like in this example from the book:
Kernel sentence: Pyramids were built
When? Ancient times
Why? Protect body of deceased pharaoh
Expanded sentence: In ancient times, pyramids were built in Egypt to protect the body of the deceased pharaoh.
Not only is this a powerful technique for prompting students to write better sentences, but it also provides a structure for guided reading tasks, and it makes students engage in more specific analysis of lesson content.
Who would I recommend this book to in the teaching profession?
The book is aimed at teachers of all subjects and ages, and I have seen many examples of its methods being used effectively in all subject areas, including maths and science. TWR methods develop not only writing skills, but also reading and critical thinking skills, so I would highly recommend it to teachers of all disciplines.
TWR provides teachers with a powerful arsenal of practical classroom strategies to enhance students’ thinking and to help them develop more refined ideas. Embedding explicit writing instruction in lessons can boost student progress no matter what the subject. In turn, students can gain confidence in verbally expressing themselves also (I have certainly witnessed this in my own lessons when using the sentence expansion strategies).
As the authors of this book explain ‘… teaching students to write is equivalent to teaching them how to think’ (p. 4). Writing is a powerful, somewhat underused, teaching tool. It helps students to synthesise information; deepens understanding of content and helps cement it in their long-term memory. Asking students to frequently write about what they’re learning has a similar effect to that of regular low-stakes quizzes/tests; students are writing in order to learn and this is applicable in any subject.
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