The development of lesson study as a way of improving teaching remains an on-going mission for our schools. This is a narrative style report on the work done by Alex and Laura, both newly qualified teachers at St. Mary’s, to improve students’ writing in English. The lesson study element was one part of a year long CPD programme aimed at improving the quality of teaching and learning.
Early in my NQT year I found myself repeating the tired cliché ‘quality, not quantity’ numerous times to my Year Eight class. In spite, or perhaps because of my repetition, it had no discernible effect on their written work. It was often copious and well-meaning, but also lacked the kind of precision and efficiency of the best writing.
Along with my fellow NQT in the English department, we struggled with meaningful ways of addressing this. As ‘expert’ writers, we would recognise the need for variety and precision, weighing up each word and phrase before committing them to paper. The question was: how can you teach this explicitly, rather than rely on some getting it and others not?
The turning point was a blogpost on ‘Slow Writing’ on David Didau’s blog ‘Learning Spy’. In essence, the approach involves placing a series of positive but strict constraints upon the students’ writing, expecting them to follow sentence-level rules. By slowing down the writing process, and demanding variety from sentence to sentence, it encourages the kind of thinking that expert writers engage in unconsciously.
From a practical point of view, the ability to pre-load the sentence rules and randomise these was a huge bonus, so I was indebted to the website Triptico for their slow-writing classroom app. In addition, later reading of Doug Lemov’s work on the ‘Art of the Sentence’ confirmed my initial confidence in the overall principle and approach – as students engage in ever more complex thoughts and ideas, they need specific sentence-level support and direction to use more advanced syntactic forms.
So, with Laura, and Stephen’s research guidance, we produced a plan to baseline my Year Eight class before beginning a scheme of learning related to descriptive writing. We felt that students were especially prone to writing copiously during descriptive tasks, as their ideas pour out of them in unstructured ways. I had hoped that slowing the act of writing would have an impact on their sentence boundaries, which could often become haphazard during extended writing tasks.
We asked all students in my class to complete a GCSE-style descriptive writing task and examined them, looking particularly at the following areas:
- The variety of sentence openers
- The variety of sentence types
- The accuracy of sentence boundaries and the number of run-on or comma-spliced sentences
- The overall variety and quality of the written piece, including attempts at introducing a wider range of vocabulary into their descriptions.
As expected, students wrote large amounts, but their work lacked detail, variety and syntactic complexity. It was clear their ideas were ambitious and interesting, but they lacked the means to adequately express them. From this starting point, I then began revisiting the following key areas in lesson:
- Sentence types
- Sentence openers
Very few in the class were aware explicitly of the types of sentence openers or sentence types that are possible in English. Indeed, for many this was entirely new knowledge and rather a shock! So too was the message that the best writing is varied. Some clearly implicitly knew this, but the majority were unaware. Every writing task that formed part of my lessons over the four week period was conducted using the slow-writing prompts suggested by David Didau. Initially, some students complained about the limitations as it prevented them from simply ‘getting on with it’. This was an expected and necessary reaction, as we needed to challenge and re-train the class out of this mindset. Over time, they recognised the impact it had on the quality of their written material, with many stating that it was clearly the best piece of writing they’d ever completed. At the end of the four week period, and having covered sentence types, starters and variety in detail, we completed an end of unit assessment. As you can see, there was a huge increase in the quality of their writing, along with an expected reduction in the amount.
Drew’s work is completely transformed by the time he writes his final piece – a major improvement in a relatively short period of time.
With ‘practice makes permanent’ in mind, the improvements made in these pieces of work will not be maintained if the slow-writing scaffolds and explicit teaching are not repeated. These need to be built into lessons over longer periods of time and reduced or removed only once it is clear students are capable of writing with variety entirely independently. I also feel that this work should start in Year Seven – it makes little sense to leave it until later in KS3 or even KS4. Lemov and Didau have demonstrated that these approaches need not be confined to English either. They can be applied with similar success across the humanities and sciences with only minor modifications. It has been hugely gratifying to see the students develop and I hope that our brief research project proves useful for others, regardless of subject.
This is Logan’s improved piece of work written four weeks after his original attempt.
The students have experienced some impressive teaching which has had a clear impact on their learning. As a school leader I can’t help but be a little bit proud and mightily impressed at the level of aspiration, commitment and quality of two teachers in their very first year in the profession.