I retrained as an English teacher at the age after spending the previous 15 years in the classroom teaching horticulture. I had then had a 10 year spell doing various types of teacher training and various teaching and learning manager posts, and I decided to retrain as I had begun to feel very far away from my subject and was still young enough for another career. I feel my ‘newbie’ status is in many ways an advantage because I am open to new ideas.
My first trainee placement (in an inner city Bradford school) coincided with the publication of The Writing Revolution (TWR). I had a mixed set of year 7’s and the first thing I asked them to do was a piece of writing. I was struck by what amazingly competent writers many of them were and my first thoughts were ‘what a fantastic job the local primary schools are doing.’ My second thought was, ‘how am I going to help these kids improve their writing?’ So I bought the book mainly because it had been recommended by Doug Lemov. I naively thought it would take me a few weeks to learn and implement the ideas. Little did I suspect that this would be part of a journey.
The first TWR lesson was the use of ‘appositives.’ This is an American term that loosely (and imperfectly) translates as a noun phrase. It is a phrase that describes the noun. I sold it to the students on the basis that it would make their writing more ‘slick.’ I showed them how they could combine two or three sentences and make them into one more complex sentence, which is a useful skill in analytical writing. The students, well aware of the grammar, were able to express the more complex ideas about the book we were studying, Oliver Twist. They were also able to reflect that appositives would help their reader to make more sense of their writing because it was smoother. My journey had begun.
My second placement was at an all girls Islamic school, already famous for their high expectations. I taught top set year 7 and 8 who were studying Shakespeare, and the 19th century novel, Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre. I noticed that the girls were able to write a lot but they found it hard to plan their paragraphs and also develop their ideas to make them more sophisticated. I started by doing a lot of sentence level work, using the conjunctions, because, but and so. One would assume that this kind of activity is too simple for top set groups in secondary school, but actually these tools are a very powerful way of encouraging students to join ideas together. Students don’t always see the connection between two ideas, and if they write about them separately, they can lose some opportunities to make their arguments more powerful. I was able to start lessons using sentence starters such as: Bronte was critical of the position of women in society because, Bronte was critical of the position of women in society but Bronte was critical of the position of women in society so. I found this stimulated ideas which led into to a very useful discussions about authorial intention and characterisation which was perfect for the formation of topic sentences.
This also led into the use of the single paragraph outline. This is probably one of the most simple, but difficult-to-implement tools in TWR repertoire. I have been trusting different ways of implementing this method for 4 years and am continuing to tweak and develop it. There are some excellent training videos on TWR website that have really helped. The beauty of the Single Paragraph Outline (SPO) is that it is very open. It follows this structure:
Concluding sentence _______________________
The topic sentence and concluding sentences should be written out in full (as indicated by the solid line) and the points should be in note form (as indicated by the dotted lines). This by itself introduces a good degree of discipline into the planning process. In my experience, students will just start writing if they don’t learn the importance of planning.
There are so may ways the SPO can be used. You can give the points and ask students to write a topic sentence and a concluding sentence. You can write a topic sentence and ask the students to write points. Today, I showed a group of ‘lockdown students’ the whole plan and showed them my paragraph. I then explained how I had developed my explanations. I showed them the plan again and told the students that they could choose their own points, or rewrite their own topic sentence if they wished. As a mixed group of 20 year 7’s, they were all able to produce a very coherent piece of work. All the pieces were different, some were more sophisticated than others. All of the students had been able to produce over half a page of writing in 10 minutes, and some , considerably more. This was just an ordinary day. Over time, I have found that the SPO does not limit the students’ thinking, it helps them to actually think.
The next step would be editing and reviewing and there is a whole chapter in TWR on this process. These lessons have been useful to helping students to see their writing as a draft and to regard writing as a process rather than a finished product. This is very useful to learners who don’t particularly see themselves as ‘writers’ because writing is a learnt skill. The materials and methods are merely part of the scaffolding. For example, I have spent entire lessons just on the use of a subordinating conjunction, although. This is very useful to help students to combine opposing ideas into a topic sentence which is particularly useful for comparative essays.
As teachers we are encouraged (by exam boards) to help students to express their ideas independently and freely. Prescriptive approaches to paragraphs, such as PEE, PEEL, PEAL have gone out of fashion. I would argue that the SPO is certainly not prescriptive. It is a tool that frees up thinking but helps students to build on and develop their arguments independently. This is precisely because the structure is open. Also I feel strongly that as secondary teachers we should be encouraging students to make the most of the grammar they have come into school with from primary. It is too good an opportunity to waste. TWR has helped me to help my writers to develop their analytical writing and to become better writers.
There are so many more tools in the book that I haven’t mentioned. I hope this piece will spark some debate about how these materials can be used in schools.