Grasping the beast – a whole school writing strategy by @marymered

I was once a National Strategy English consultant (nice work if you could get it); the old Language Across the Curriculum (LAC) folder is an old, if somewhat preachy, friend and I’ve led on literacy in a number of schools. So bitter experience has taught me just what a slippery beast LAC can be; how you can think that this time you’ve finally grasped it only to see it slither away across the sands, leaving behind the merest of traces. Perhaps a few course evaluations and a literacy audit or two.

I’m not actually a great fan of audits and I tried hard in my current post to move beyond ‘planning for literacy’. I wanted to develop pedagogy, to ensure that reading, writing and oracy skills were explicitly taught. The Thomas Cowley Connectives Kit was an early attempt at this. I sold it to colleagues as one of the means by which we could empower students to really make a mark in the world. They need to ‘own’ connectives like ‘conversely’, ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’, I explained. This is the language of academic success, but it’s not the language our students use in everyday speech. It feels alien to them so we must immerse them in it. If we all do this consistently, across the curriculum, students will arrive at the point where they no longer feel as though they are impersonating Prince Charles when they use it, I insisted. Furthermore, they will come to understand, through teacher modelling and repeated practice, what formal connectives actually mean – the nuances of this essential vocabulary.

To this end, every teacher was furnished with a rainbow kit of colour-coded (for sequencing, arguing etc), laminated connectives to break out whenever the opportunity arose (I can sense you smelling a flaw in this strategy already). I made a training video of teachers, including the Headteacher, using the kit in History, Technology, Science and Citizenship and teaching strategies were shared through a connectives kit guide.

I had high hopes for the strategy. Indeed, I shared it at several SSAT conferences in my capacity as a leading literacy teacher. However, if you asked our students six months later, you would struggle to find one who could tell you a single thing about all of this exciting activity. It had minimal impact. Teachers learned about the importance of connectives, they increased their literacy knowledge, of that I’m certain. But this knowledge didn’t translate into day to day teaching and learning practice. Ultimately, therefore, our students were pretty much untroubled by it.

What was missing, I now see, was a focus on tangible outcomes. The connectives kit was all about process and only a relentless programme of focused lesson observations would have ensured that colleagues were really engaging with that process. Some did for a time but, in truth, teachers of subjects always feel that they have other more pressing priorities and this, with literacy, is the perennial barrier to buy-in.

So, working with the Headteacher and another SLT member – a mathematician – I developed last summer a much more robust, more challenging and outcomes-focused literacy strategy. Half of it is the subject of this post, our enriched KS3 writing curriculum, the other half of the strategy – a whole school approach to reading – I will share later. Both strands are evolving, we are all learning as we go, but, crucially, the students would be able to tell you what’s happened so far. So would their parents and carers. This literacy strategy has had an impact.

For those who require numbers to be persuaded, I don’t yet have any hard data to support this claim. I happen to agree with John Hattie on this – that all positive outcomes are not test scores. However, I am confident that we will see a rise in standards of writing over time at TCHS. Within individual student portfolios, this is evident already.

I’ve linked some resources to the bottom of this post and these I think to explain the approach, which is very simple. However, its underpinning philosophy is also worth outlining. Our ‘KS3 Writing Portfolio’ strategy is based on M.A.K Halliday’s research and the genre theory that grew out of it in 1980s Australia. Halliday demonstrated that children were being asked to repeat the same narrow range of largely personal and subjective writing tasks in schools. The forms of discourse used by people and institutions of power were not being taught or learned. Only by consciously and purposely inserting these into the English curriculum, Halliday maintained, would working-class children be empowered. The National Strategy for writing, its ‘text types’, was based on this premise and this also underpins our writing portfolio approach. Students must persuade, discuss, explain, recount and so on in extended prose across the curriculum.

There is nothing new about our approach then. Genre theory remains a mainstay of the literacy curriculum a decade after the National Strategy has been archived and LAC folders consigned to the skip of educational initiatives. It is less influential in secondary schools though, as is the sharing of writing success criteria generally. A ‘work scrutiny’ undertaken by my maths colleague found that much writing across the curriculum lacked a clear sense of purpose and opportunities for students to produce extended pieces were limited.

Our KS3 portfolio was introduced to address these weaknesses – and also to tackle the well documented Year 7 ‘transition dip’. Students understand that, in every subject except PE, they must produce at least one piece of extended writing (500 words is the minimum length) which is planned, drafted, redrafted, proof-read and collated to form a portfolio of excellent work, sent home with the school report.

There is also a section within each subject report where teachers comment on this writing and offer constructive advice. Having recently proof-read these, I am heartened by the quality and the confidence of the feedback. As a staff, we are speaking the same literacy language.

During last summer’s planning, subject leaders were given the opportunity to select the text type or types for teaching. Only English tackle all of them, submitting one portfolio piece per term. The cover sheets, linked below, ensure that success criteria are consistently shared across subjects. They are centrally important; the glue that holds our writing curriculum together.

Pedagogy is developing too as teachers learn from early mistakes. Whilst portfolio work was carefully located within the National Strategy’s ‘teaching sequence for writing’ (explore a model, identify its features, demonstrate the writing, scaffold) when it was launched, the effective sharing of success criteria was initially a weakness. Talking students through the cover sheets was never going to suffice and this element of practice has undoubtedly strengthened over the year.

The Portfolio strategy continues to evolve and consultation has been essential. We agreed recently that we would no longer grade portfolio work, for example. This was always a mistake, and I should have revisited Dylan William before suggesting the Above, Meets and Below Expectations mark scheme of 2014-15. It was always more about accountability measures than learning needs. We have introduced additional text types – a ‘Response to Reading’ for English and an evaluation cover sheet for technology. The sheet now includes a ‘prompt’ which requires learners to actively engage with their feedback. We also agreed that 500 words was not a realistic or helpful goal for some SEN learners who were too dependent on scaffolding to achieve it.

So the strategy evolves as we come together as a staff to evaluate it and this is perhaps the most positive outcome of them all. An early reviewer of Hattie’s Visible Learning described ‘educator collaboration’ as one of the book’s three ‘big ideas’. “Schools cannot help all students to learn if educators work in isolation. Schools must create the structures and cultures that foster effective educator collaboration.” (Rick DuFour)

It dawned on me just how exciting our literacy collaboration has become when our Head of Technology invited me into his lesson to watch his students at work, just a few weeks ago. He was delighted that the evaluations they were writing were so much stronger than their first efforts. A true professional, he had evaluated his approach, adjusted it and this time managed to secure the outcomes he was looking for. Students were crafting their writing as confidently and carefully as they had been their WW2 ration boxes earlier in the term. (But more of that later, when I share our reading strategy.)

Click to download the following resources:

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Mary Meredith and published with kind permission.

This article was originally published in 2015, and updated in 2019 in accordance with website changes by UKEd Editorial staff.

The original post can be found here.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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