Reflections of My Year, Part 2 – The Craft of Writing

GrammarRulesMuch of 2012 was spent supporting teachers looking for ideas and resources to assist students develop their writing skills. Much of the discussion started in response to analyzing and reflecting on HSC and NAPLAN results but it soon moved on from there.

A great stimulus for the discussion came out of the arrival of the K -10 Literacy Continuum. This excellent DEC document identifies the 8 key areas of literacy (reading texts, comprehension, writing, vocabulary, speaking, phonics, phonemics and concepts of print) as well as the 16 clusters/levels of development over time. The Continuum explicitly highlights what the typical student should be able do at a given point of time in each aspect and, as a result, is an incredibly valuable tool for teachers and their students.

What was assumed students should be able to do by the end of Stage 2, for example, challenged many teacher assumptions re when to introduce certain aspects of writing such as when to start teaching complex sentences, introduce figurative language or paragraphing. The Continuum got us talking about what we do to support students’ literacy development, when we teach different markers/elements and how does that look in our classrooms.

One of the key results of exploring and using the Continuum has been putting the focus was back on what has been getting lost amongst all the other demands placed on teachers – the explicit and systematic teaching of writing at all stages of school.

Our obsession with content dominates as students head into Stage 3 and beyond and, as such, we increasingly push explicit teaching of the craft of writing to the side to “get through the content” of our syllabi. My mantra used to be “What is the point of all that content if they cannot express what they know?” I used to stress “less is more” as at least then students can have a chance to explore and express their understanding of the content in a variety of forms and structures and take some ownership (and delight hopefully) of what they have been learning. This ability to express the content that they did cover would translate into far better test results than just hurtling through all the content with little time to contemplate and communicate it. To help that expression of their ideas and understanding I developed structures to explicitly teach the “BIG” picture writing elements – paragraphing and structuring an argument. I worked with students to expand their vocabulary and developed word banks for students to learn.All this is still great but now I realize that I have to go further if my students are truly going to be competent writers who can succeed at school and be prepared for life beyond the exams.We (I) need to allocate far more time to the Craft of Writing and by that I mean the actual structuring of what we write – sentences, punctuation, grammar and spelling. These “basics” are the cornerstone of any student’s writing, persuasive or otherwise, and the further the student goes up the education ladder the less time is currently being spent teaching, honing and stressing the importance of good writing across the curriculum. This situation has also been compounded by the fact that many of today’s teachers were not taught grammar when they were at school thanks to the whole language approach and the belief that we would just “get it” through exposure to good writing. I can tell you I was one of those students and I only learnt grammar thanks to my study of the Italian language. As a result, we often lack the confidence to do more than the basics when it comes to teaching The Craft of Writing.
With all this in mind, I spent a lot of Term Four 2012 working with teachers on all aspects of grammar starting at word level and moving up to the whole text level – building up their knowledge so that they can, in turn, more systematically teach the Craft of Writing to their students. I have to tell you that I learnt as much as those that I was working with!
GRAMMAR

Armed with a greater understanding of grammar and the Literacy Continuum K-10 we can better support our students on their road to being capable and confident writers. If we spend time every week explicitly teaching students sentence structures, complex grammar and punctuation as well as sophisticated vocabulary we will see students writing improve out of sight. This every day celebration of the Craft of Writing will set up our students for success (even in NAPLAN) far more than a term of swatting up on persuasive techniques or a language revision unit at the start of a year – look at the NAPLAN marking criteria if you want further proof. If we want our students to achieve Band 6 in the HSC (and be set up for success at university) then we need to hone their writing skills as an integral part of every unit rather than an aside just before an assessment task.

Just as importantly, we need to stress that the Craft of Writing is as essential to students as the content. The ability to effectively communicate their ideas in a written format to an audience is an essential skill that they can and must work at achieving. Paragraphs do matter, a capital I is important, and sophistication is not writing a long and convoluted sentence. One way to stress that is making it part of every assessment task marking rubric – but only if you have taught what you are looking for. Students need to realise that people will judge them on the way they write and that judgement, rightly or wrongly, will impact on their HSC results in ALL subjects as well as potentially impact on their  ability to get a job or  even impress someone important to them.

bad-grammarUsing-Proper-Grammar-and-Punctuation

 

 

So this year as I head back to school I am going to make everyday a day to celebrate and teach the Craft of Writing. I will get them to write every day and I will read and mark everything they write (a point effectively emphasized to me by the amazing Phil Beadle when he was in Coffs). I will also close mark at least one paragraph so I can identify their strengths as well as their weaknesses and then incorporate teaching these into my future lessons so they continue to grow as writers. I will clearly and regularly show them what good writing looks like and why that such writing skills are valuable to them.

So what will you be doing this year to help develop your students’ writing skills? Some questions to get you thinking:

  • When you mark a student’s work do you take the time to see if they have used a variety of sentence types, simple, compound and complex, and that they are varying the organization of their sentences to reflect decisions about what is the key message of that sentence?
  • Do you identify sentence fragments and explain how they could be made into complete ideas?
  • Do you look for the cohesive elements that help their ideas flow between sentences and paragraphs – collocation, synonyms, referring pronouns etc?
  • Do you check to see if they are using simple, everyday words rather than more complex vocabulary to express their ideas including nominalisations?
  • Are they using a well-chosen adverb to emphasize a point?
  • Do you check to see if they are using punctuation correctly?
  • Can your students use more complex punctuation such as semi colons and hyphens?
  • Do you identify common weaknesses in the students’ writing for teaching points in coming days and weeks?
  • Do you include explicit teaching of writing elements in your units or are your programs more content focused or “whole text” focused rather than including literacy development from word level up?
  • Do you have explicit language criteria in your marking rubrics and by that I mean more explicit than “sophisticated” or “sound” use of language appropriate to the task?

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Grammar Girl – a great place to learn all things grammar.

Some other valuable sites for you and your students:

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hypergrammar2

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About madiganda

Head Teacher English and now literacy consultant, passionate about English, education and embracing the future. Oh and a reality tv fan!
This entry was posted in Teaching and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Reflections of My Year, Part 2 – The Craft of Writing

  1. Loved the blog. I agree with the focus on ‘crafting’ writing and not just doing it. Good writing takes time, thought and effort – it doesn’t just happen. The questions are a great starting point. In our school, I have placed the emphasis on teachers teaching students about writing being a set of choices. What choices will I have to make for this piece of writing?

    Bring on the ‘Grammar’ revolution! I have my placard ready.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Xris32

    • madiganda says:

      Thanks, Chris. I like the focus on what choices are needed to make this piece of writing and it makes them understand the deliberate choices that writers make to communicate their ideas. It s our job as teachers to ensure they have as many tools and techniques to choose from to make the most effective choices.

  2. ronda says:

    “Students need to realise that people will judge them on the way they write and that judgement, rightly or wrongly, will impact on their HSC results in ALL subjects as well as potentially impact on their ability to get a job or even impress someone important to them.”

    I think this is a really important issue and it’s going to be increasingly difficult to battle as txtspk, memes and general online banter normalise the use of poor spelling and grammar. Why would our students find any value in correct spelling, grammar and punctuation when everyone they communicate with is writing the same way, and they’re getting their message across? Not to mention there’s an increasing number of public texts such as labelling and signwriting which deliberately uses this kind of text or other ‘creative’ methods, thus giving them some kind of legitimacy. So I think it’s going to be increasingly important to focus on audience and purpose, and deconstructing authentic texts.

    Great blog post. Such a powerful platform through which to share your wisdom! Thanks for doing it. 🙂

  3. madiganda says:

    Thanks Ronda 🙂 One of the biggest challenges for students, and their teachers, is that success at school/university and many aspect of life is linked to their ability to write in “academic” English which is very different to the way we talk. We need to show them there are different styles and levels of language for different situations, contexts and audiences and then teach the elements so that they can use them as appropriate – including txtspk.

  4. Otisa says:

    Thank you for an excellent blog post. You might like to have a look at http://www.otisa.com.au. In February we will be publishing professional learning modules which focus on grammar basics and the teaching of grammar in the context of reading and writing.

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