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14 January 2021
By Zoe Enser

Slowing Down to Embed Learning in the English Classroom

Schools are places where lots of things happen in a rush. When you have a student or a parent in front of you with an issue, or a group of students who need to be organised and moved onto something else, we can often end up focusing on the operational. Thinking time can be at a minimum in the day to day proceedings of a school day and I have written before about the need to slow down from a leadership perspective here.

However, I wonder if in the day to day rush we also sometimes forget to get students to slow down? We ask them to discuss, write, write some more and then move on. One thing I know I did when designing curriculum was often move on to the next topic without much consideration of how the topics were sequenced and how core information moved across from one unit to another. Units would switch between reading and writing and the expectation that doing more of it would make them better is thankfully a thing of the past.

Yet, I still think we may be rushing students through some processes. This is where things like cognitive load theory and modelling have been really useful in slowing me down and giving students more time to embed understanding fully before moving on. But there is still more to be done, especially in terms of writing.

Students arrive from primary school with an apparent proficiency in writing. They have their SATs score and folders of written work and are even armed with an understanding of how their fronted adverbial differs from the expanded noun phrase. Whilst I don’t want to risk the idea that students haven’t developed a certain level of proficiency and start everyone off on the basics, we do know there are often gaps. Raw SATs scores or writing ability over an extended piece of work do not always reflect the nuances of the situation. Students can have a wonderful vocabulary and enough understanding of what ‘sounds’ right in writing, but do they really have an understanding of the core ingredients of our writing process?

The answer to this is often no. I am left wondering how effectively students can really ‘craft’ their writing, something we know we want for all our students. One way to think about this is in relation to cookery. You might have an idea of a dish you want to create- a coconut curry for example. You might know how it looks, you might know how it tastes, you may even have a range of ingredients, but that doesn’t mean you are going to know how to actually make it. But in order to do this really well, you need to understand the ingredients and their properties. This will be useful in ensuring you don’t add too much of one thing, not enough of another. You also need to understand how these ingredients may interact with each other so you don’t make a mess instead (here I tend to think about the time my dad added vinegar to his scrambled eggs as he was convinced his mum did it!).

So how does this relate to writing? I think it is important for students to really understand the main ingredients, the words, the syntactical choices we make and how when we combine them, we can make choices which will impact on the overall effect. So, for example if we add too much or too little chilli to my curry example.

This is how I go about ensuring that students are able to do this.

1. Explicit Teaching of the Properties

Make sure that students have a good knowledge of grammar and vocabulary to make the right choices. They are often keen to grab into a thesaurus when we ask them to use ambitious vocabulary, but unless they really understand the word in action, they can end up making the wrong choice. Not all synonyms are created equal, and we could run the risk of them signing a letter off as ‘Baby Kangaroo Tribiani’ instead of Joey Tribiani as happened in an episode of Friends. Make sure students are explicitly taught about vocabulary and sentence structures so they understand how they work and use what we know about effective retrieval practice to embed these fully.

2. Modelling

I am a big fan of showing students how we do this through live modelling. Show them the choices we make in our writing and explain why. Try to demystify this process by being as explicit as possible and taking them step by step through the writing sequence to make it as explicit as possible.

3. Reflect

As part of the modelling process, show them how we as writers adapt and edit our work to improve and craft it. I have met students who genuinely believe that writing is something you just can do, or not do, well. They think writers just manage to write things as they occur to them and reflection isn’t something good writers do. Resources such as the Wilfred Owen collection are a good way to illustrate this as they can see his alternative drafts and notes. There are many other examples of writer’s work in progress. Build in time for students to reflect and adapt, thinking about the impact they want to have on their reader.

4. Deliberate and Guided Practice

To guide students through these stages I am a big fan of things like Slow Writing. In this process you want students to write how pieces which you guide them heavily through. I might ask them to describe something, but to begin with an adverbial phrase. I then ask them to write a compound sentence or a complex one. I do this over a paragraph, ensuring they leave a space between each line, so they can then go back and make changes and show their editing process.

Initially, my Key Stage 4 students found this difficult as they were just used to writing. However, by slowing them right down and forcing them to think carefully about the process they are using was something they found really powerful in getting them to consider their writing in a different way. As a result, they were able to produce better quality work.

This also leads to using these shorter pieces in a way to deliberately practice ‘perfectly’. They have to consider the punctuation they are using and why, as well as the vocabulary. All too often students rush to finish a task, not to craft a piece of writing. This is especially true at GCSE where time limits are imposed.

5. Take Time to Think

Planning properly would be ideal and I model the planning process with students regularly. Ultimately what this is about though, is taking time to structure their thinking and consider what they are aiming to achieve, as opposed to that ‘job finish’ approach so many seem to have. I advise students in the exam to take 10 of their 45 minutes planning in some form, even if some of this happens in their head rather than on the page. We practice this again in class, with me giving them a task and not allowing them to begin the writing until the 10 minutes are up. Again, some will resist this and find it uncomfortable watching the clock. Nor can I control if they are thinking about the task as opposed to something else, but ultimately, I tend to find they will produce something much more measured than if they just got on and wrote. It is also worth turning to the research here, which indicates that students who wrote more words were actually less likely to achieve a higher grade than those who wrote only a few pages.

I use this approach with Literature essays too, finding the extract questions often lead to this happening naturally as students will be more likely to think about the question and consider it more carefully than if they just have a question on its own.

If you would like to discuss any of these topics, or anything else relating to English topics, do please contact me.

Zoe Enser is the Lead Specialist English Adviser for The Education People

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