Research School Network: Writing is the problem! Or is it? The first in a series of blogs examining how St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School, Birmingham, is improving student writing.


Writing is the problem! Or is it?

The first in a series of blogs examining how St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School, Birmingham, is improving student writing.

by Staffordshire Research School
on the

This is the first in a series of blogs examining how one school, St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Birmingham, has attempted to improve students’ writing. Future blogs will examine the main levers for change as well as the nuances behind the disciplinary approach to writing that has been employed.

Our students just don’t write well in exams!” was the cry from a teacher in 2019 on hearing the results of some of her students. We began with this question, however the foremost responsibility of any school leader is to pinpoint the actual issue at hand. Is it a lack of academic vocabulary? Poor reading fluency? Clogged up working memories? Lack of cultural capital? Lack of writing fluency? Writing resilience? Poor independent study habits? The questions could of course keep going but for us it was important that almost all our questions went to literacy; it is here where our plan to improve writing starts but not with a focus on writing.

Take a long-term view

Don’t be tempted to rush

If the essence of our issue lies in literacy, surely we are ready to go full steam ahead with the EEF’s guidance report on Secondary Literacy and introduce the shiny new writing strategy. Our experience with thinking deeply about implementation though made us put the brakes on. Before we leap into solutions, it is imperative to meticulously define the issue. Only then can we start to precisely codify the active ingredients necessary to bring about the changes we desire. This is not a phase to be rushed; resist the allure of a quick-fix solution. Instead, take a long-term view and plan for how to improve over the next two to three years.

“The language gap is the attainment gap”

Clarity came for our thinking when we gave ourselves time to make the changes we needed. We decided on a three year plan with Year 1 focussing on oracy and eloquence, Year 2 on reading and Year 3 would begin our work on improving writing. We quickly determined though that the writing work was going to take more than a year. For a school with over half of the students designated as Pupil Premium, we knew the language gap was a critical lever and Marc Rowland’s phrase, when written in 2022, resonated deeply with both our mission and objectives.

Phase 1: Improving Oracy

Our key active ingredients were:

1. Academic talk: subject disciplines define academic talk in their faculty. Doug Lemov’s Say it again, better” and Right is right” became critical classroom mantras.

2. Format matters – Drawing from Lemov’s insights, we honed in on the significance of students providing answers that were unequivocally all the way right.’

3. Eloquence – Positioned as one of our six fundamental school values, eloquence received dedicated attention. We invested time in clearly defining it for students, even incorporating it onto the front cover of all their exercise books.

Components of Eloquence

Whilst the exercise book (click on the image below) was one tool, the true catalyst for success lay in the Professional Development programme (The Implementation Activities). Genuine improvements, marked by fidelity and acceptability, are only realised when the underlying rationale (the WHY”) is truly understood.

Concluding Thoughts

1. Take your time to define the problem
2. Take a long-term view; resist the temptation to move too quickly and go for sustainable, long-term change
3. Ground your strategy in evidence-based best bets.

Above all, don’t expect any of your solutions to solve your issues overnight. Don’t expect your students to put into practice in History what they have just learnt in English language without support. Instead, put your trust in the research informed, best bet’ strategies and ensure you persevere. Forge connections between these strategies and others, constructing a professional development curriculum that aligns with your thinking on literacy.

This article was written by Jeremy Baker, ELE for Staffordshire Research School 

To read more about this subject and recommendations from the EEF visit: 


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