Writing Beyond

An ELA project designed to enhance students’ academic writing and oracy skills

What’s happened to essay writing?
Is there anything teachers can do about it? 

Neil Jones and Mo Middleton think there is, and here they tell us how they plan to: starting with Chesterton Community College, they are piloting an approach that they hope will have impact on teaching and learning across the secondary schools in the Trust.

A perceived need: some context

Our job as teachers, very clearly, is to ensure that all students finish their schooling as well qualified as they possibly can be.

Budgeting for the longer term, however, no teacher would want their students to be unequipped for the next stages of their academic life. And that is our concern: that while students gain very much from expert instruction in exam success, they might be losing the chance to develop the liveliness and authenticity of their own thinking, talking and extended writing.

Indeed, from reading professional journals, and from talking with teachers at several universities, this is their concern too. We hear of science undergraduates panicking at the thought of writing a fifteen-hundred-word essay (“I chose physics because I wouldn’t have to write!”); of second-year history students lacking confidence without a prescribed frame; of silent seminars and students who refuse to present their ideas to their peers, however briefly, to however small an audience. None of these stories is told in mockery or despair: these students’ tutors and lecturers want to help. So do we.

Through the hoops, and beyond

Earlier this year, Mo Middleton and I were asked by the CEO of the Trust to co-ordinate a project on academic writing.  Initial discussions covered the qualms outlined above.  We also acknowledged immediately that we must all work with the curriculum and examination regime as it is.  And yet, what would help deepen students’ thinking and written expression, while not harming attainment in exam paper, short-form answers? 

We believed that this circle can be squared – and, indeed, that this is what high quality teaching does.  By talking, thinking and writing beyond the formulaic, intellectual development takes place alongside the attainment of the grade – which, surely, is what we want.

Professional working party

In October, Mo and I convened a group of interested teachers across the subject disciplines, to share our hunches and canvass theirs.  We discussed our love of our respective disciplines, and why they matter.  We considered which academic writers had inspired us when we were younger, through their writings or in person, and what these writers had taught us about communicating ideas and constructing arguments.  

Then, as practical classroom professionals, we gave our hunches about what gets in the way of teaching our students to write well.  Two strands quickly emerged.  We agreed that we struggled to make or find time to train our students explicitly in:

  • Oracy – how to speak in extended turns, or to keep track of an argument, to build on previous contributions, to challenge, to seek clarity. Colleagues noted “a culture of silence and non-responsiveness” in many lessons. 
  • Writing as drafting – the fact that engaged, engaging writing is only possible through drafting and crafting from an unsatisfactory first attempt.

We discussed strategies for both.  For oracy, these included using scaffolded talk-stems for students; Socratic questioning exercises in groups; and building short, structured debates into lessons before writing.  From the opposite angle, two colleagues were interested in seeing students scripting short dialogues on a problem, building that into talk and then turning it back into extended prose.  

In drafting essays, colleagues discussed teacher modelling the slow refinement it entails.  We wondered if we could, at strategic points, make that time to “draft for excellence”, rather than stick to a schedule of “doing a mock answer every two weeks”.  We also discussed current experiments using Chat GPT-generated text as a tool for refining students’ own writing – an approach both exciting and daunting.

“Would you want to live forever?”

There was consensus, then, to take from this meeting.  In December, Mo and I ran a three-hour workshop with fifty Year 10 students at Chesterton.  We wanted to put them through their paces, engaging in activities that got them discussing more and drafting more.  After some knockabout warm-ups in debating basics, where they learned how articulate agreement and disagreement confidently but persuasively, we threw the students a meaty, conceptual question: “Would you want to live forever?”  They worked in small groups, and then in larger teams, to gather facts and evidence and different views on the subject (using the free Oxplore website – an excellent resource from the University of Oxford), until they were ready for an extended, formal debate.  After a break, those students who had been tasked with advocating for everlasting life in the debate worked in pairs to write an extended paragraph, giving their reasoning – likewise, those who opposed.  Then, opposers and proposers were put into mixed pairs, and asked to draft and refine three-hundred words jointly, which combined argument and counterargument.  We gave advanced tips to those who were especially keen to refine their expression, such as one recipe for a political soundbite (“three ideas in twenty-seven words comes out at nine seconds”).  [Some examples of their ideas are shown in this bubble graphic.]

The students rose to the challenge, and we shared our insights with the working party.  Colleagues are now in the process of trying out similar strategies with their own classrooms, and we will gather feedback in the spring term.  In parallel to this project, we are pushing further in our focus on both oracy and essay drafting.  For example, in January, The Royal Literary Fund Bridge project ran extremely useful essay workshops at Chesterton Sixth Form. Year 10 students across the Trust will be taking part in the Speakers’ Trust Speak Out competition in May.  

We are delighted that the Trust is taking academic writing seriously, within the existing reality of the educational landscape, and at a level appropriate to the students’ ages.  Our work so far convinces us of two things.  First, that our students need to find their voice; and second, that to develop more engagement, insight and authenticity in our students’ writing, in all disciplines, we should help them to discuss more and draft more.  In the summer term, we will report back on the extent to which our thinking is correct.

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