Literacy is the word: 8 tips for improving your pupils’ writing

As every teacher knows, literacy lies at the heart of all learning.

But studies show that the UK is the only economically developed country where young people aged 16-24 have the lowest literacy skills of any age group*.

One explanation is the declining level of parent-child interaction in the home.

Speaking and listening skills are the foundation of good reading and writing skills. So talking to children is crucial to their development.

But, as revealed in a research document published by The Literacy Trust, just one in four children now regularly converses with their family at mealtimes. And, as parent-child interaction declines, so children have fewer opportunities to practice their vocabulary and structure and communicate their ideas.

Despite this, the onus for raising standards of literacy has fallen not on parents, but squarely on teachers. And, to make your task even more imposing, there are many barriers to teaching writing skills in the classroom -- from engaging reluctant writers to visual learners and pupils with SEN.

Fortunately, there are proven strategies that you can employ to get all your pupils writing. Here are 8 tips for starters, featuring fun, practical activities, drawn up with input from experienced teachers.

1. Convince all pupils that they can write well

Children often feel self-conscious about their written work. So a good way to boost their confidence is to prove to them that we all make mistakes.

Why not demonstrate how you proofread your own emails and letters before sending them? This shows that even as an adult you have to review your writing, and makes the whole idea of writing things down seem less daunting. By modelling behaviour, you can help to support children in their learning.

Another strategy is to set fun, open-ended topics that include more specific elements of modelling...

Ask for input from the class to create some example sentences. You can then put these on the board to model different sentence structures, before asking the class to write their own. That way your less confident writers will have practical examples to guide their writing, enabling them to complete the task with less support from teacher. With some good sentences under their belt, they’ll have more confidence when they come to tackle their next piece of written work, and will have been scaffolded in their approach.

2. Fire your pupils’ passion for reading

Angela Watson, an educational consultant who publishes the popular weekly ‘Truth For Teachers’ podcast, has some fantastic ideas for getting students excited about reading.

We really like this one:

“Turn your students’ book reading into year-long wall art! Cut a colored strip of paper to resemble a book spine and write the title of the book on it. Every time a student reads a new book, staple or thumbtack a new “book spine” above the student’s name. Over time, these “stacks” of books will grow vertically like a large-scale visual bar graph. Students will be able to see each other’s progress and can compete to grow their stacks; or, create stacks for different genres of books and have students compare the amounts read.”

Make sure to ask your pupils some questions whenever they finish a book to ensure they have understood the subject matter. To give them a goal to work towards, you could even offer them a reward for reading a target number of books or reading books across a number of genres.

Check out Angela’s 7 tips for getting students excited about writing.

Another way to fire your pupils’ passion for reading is to start up some book clubs.

For these to be effective, you should carefully (and subtly!) group your pupils according to ability and reading interests. Give them a new book to read and discuss each week. Perhaps they could act out their favourite scenes for the entertainment of the other groups. Or create a poster to show the class, promoting some of the key points from their book.

3. Support writing with effective ICT provision

Effective ICT provision is a must-have for any school looking to improve the skills of pupils who struggle with reading, especially those with conditions such as dyslexia.

Among the ICT that your school should strongly consider investing in are:

  • Reading pens and portable reading tools
  • Curriculum materials in accessible formats
  • Colour overlays
  • Tablets
  • Audio capture and editing software.

As any teacher who has attended the annual Bett Show will tell you, there is an enormous range of ICT on the market. For an overview of what’s available, have a quick read of our recent blog on the subject:

BLOG: 27 ICT Solutions for the Inclusive Secondary School

And here’s a blog that will help you make the most of your school’s investment in iPads:

BLOG: Using iPads in the Classroom - 5 Features that you Never Knew you Had

4. Show that writing has a practical purpose

When your pupils see that writing isn’t a boring, stuffy classroom activity, but a skill that they can use to communicate in the real world, your reluctant writers will begin to view it in a completely different light.

One way that you can demonstrate this is to break your class into pairs and ask each pair to put together a newspaper. You can spread this task across several weeks or a term by setting a new writing task in each lesson.

For instance, in one lesson you could ask your pupils to write about all the remarkable beasties they discovered on a visit to the school pond, in the style of a celebrity gossip column. Or you could get them to write in other styles of writing, such as sports reporting, interviews or hard-hitting news pieces.

Each week, the task could tie into the subjects that the students have been working on, further deepening their understanding of the topics covered.

The different style, tone and structure employed in each of these forms of writing will help your pupils see the many different ways in which we can use writing to communicate. Show them clippings from newspapers as models that they can follow when writing their own pieces.

Along the way, your pupils should collate their work into a folder, which will be a great resource for showing off their progress at parent’s evening.

5. Set up writing workshops

By encouraging collaboration and grouping confident writers with those who find it a struggle, you can get all your pupils scribbling away.

For instance, you could divide your pupils into groups and set a different ‘starter sentence’ for each that establishes a character and location. From here, the group should work together to build a story. If you feel they might struggle, you can set milestones to guide the narrative, i.e. requirements that the character encounter a problem, meet a new friend or make a special discovery.

Alternatively, you could set a starter sentence and pass this around the classroom. Each pupil should contribute the next sentence to create a flowing narrative. To make the task a little harder, you could set additional requirements for each sentence. For example, that they feature a metaphor or take the form of a statement.

To take the pressure off your pupils, get them to write their answer without telling the rest of the class, so that only the next pupil in the group sees what they have written.


6. Unlock your pupils’ creative writing skills

Everyone loves to get creative and very often pupils who struggle with writing are highly creative thinkers.

So get your class buzzing by planning some creative writing activities.

For example, you could ask the class to write about what kind of superhero they would like to be. What’s their name, what is their special power and how do they dress? Have them describe their superhero alter ego and keep a diary of the superhero’s daily life.You could even take it further by making costumes and having the children interact with each other as their made-up characters. Or get them to work on a comic strip detailing their superhero’s adventures.

The beauty of this task is that your pupils will need to get inventive and imaginative with language to give their superhero a voice. How might they talk? How might they use things like punctuation, sentence structure and type to bring their personality alive? You can use popular cartoon strips to model this process.

Children are bursting with creative ideas and given a starting point it’s amazing to see what they come up with. So you could also try asking your class for some random words, create a list of these and get the students to create a comedic poem using all of the words. Applying this slightly nonsensical theme alleviates the pressure to produce something serious.

7. Run speaking and listening activities

Many students find it much easier to express their ideas by speaking them, rather than by reaching for pen and paper. So why not scaffold the writing process by recording your pupils expressing their thoughts on a topic before writing them down? This way they can listen back to what they have said and give it another go wherever they decide (with your prompting!) that they could do better.

Speaking and listening activities can also be used to improve your pupils’ reading skills, which, of course, are closely tied to writing skills.

One teacher who did this effectively was Carol Weal of Dale Court Grammar School, who had her pupils deliver a famous speech, recording it for review with Sonocent Audio Notetaker.

Using the software’s colour-highlighting tool, they could mark parts of the recording where they had stumbled over their words, mumbled, failed to emphasise relevant words or phrases or ignored punctuation. Carol then asked her pupils to assess their work against a list of criteria before grading themselves.

At this point, the pupils listened to a speech delivered by the environmental activist Severn Suzuki, and noted how the quality of her delivery contrasted with their own efforts. From the spacing of the audio chunks they could see how well-paced this speech was. After grading Suzuki’s speech, the pupils lowered their own self-appointed marks without prompting from the teacher. This exercise encouraged self review and self critique; a key skill in written assignments.

8. Help pupils who struggle with extended writing

Obviously, your ultimate aim with all these activities is to get your pupils to a stage where they are ready to complete a piece of extended writing.

To help pupils who struggle with writing, consider placing sentence starters and a bank of keywords at their disposal. You can also provide writing frames to give them a structure for their piece.

The teachers we spoke to said that they stick keywords up all over their classroom -- on the wall, hanging from washing lines… be as inventive as you can. These kinds of prompters are a particularly important aid for pupils with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia.

Other tips from our teachers included:

providing positive reinforcement every time a pupil uses a keyword effectively and in the appropriate context in their written work
placing less emphasis on written work produced with word processing software and greater emphasis on writing and subsequent checking of spelling, punctuation and grammar
scheduling a peer assessed extended writing task for each lesson.



Dec 07

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