Ok, so I’m a little behind, but I do like the blogsync idea – a team of twitter teachers all blogging about the same topic each month. I’m pretty sure “great writers” was May, but hey it was half-term.
This time around, it was all about how to create “convincing and compelling” writers. In the teaching of writing it’s easy to condense writing into frames and acronyms – PEE, PEA, PEAL, PETAL, WETRATS and so on. While these do have some merit, in making sure students understand basic paragraphing, I’d argue that by the time students get to thinking about GCSEs they should have that basic structure down and be starting to play around with it. I’m focusing more here on analytical writing, rather than creative.
The question is, what is “convincing and compelling writing”? For me, it’s writing that sings of enjoyment. It’s not uncommon for me to write as a target “have more fun with your writing”, and I’m very lucky indeed to work in a school where that’ But how do you convey that enjoyment – or, in the case of some students, fake it. I know some students hate English and don’t see the point, or adopt a very workmanlike, head-down and gritted teeth approach. But even they can write convincingly. I have a feeling each of these could be a blog-post in themselves, but here goes, in brief:
How to write compellingly:
Nothing worse than reading an essay and thinking “mmm, no.” The old phrase “there’s no wrong answer in English” is, ironically, wrong. What you’re saying has to be reasonable and come from the text, or it doesn’t really matter how you’re writing.
Be clear and develop a line of argument across the whole piece
Paragraphs that lead from one thought to another, and guide the reader are essential. Clear topic sentences and deliberate organisation are key.
Write a thought-provoking and challenging introduction
Answer the question in an inventive, slightly off-beat way if you can. If not, then use something a little out of the ordinary – a quote, a contextual reference, a question. Something to make me sit up and take notice.
Be expressive, and interesting
Use great language. Not just literary terminology,although that’s important, but language that is precise and detailed. “Melancholy” is so much more expressive than “sad”. I ban the words “positive” and “negative” because they’re far too vague – “positive” could be happy, joyful, calm, optimistic, loving, and a whole host more. What do you actually mean?
Have a dynamic conclusion that reaches beyond the question/topic
Write tightly, and use an academic voice.
The best practical advice I’ve come across for improving work has been David Didau’s piece on lexical density, which I’ve used over and over again, across key stages 3-5. There’s something about focusing students on writing to a word limit which really forces them to cut the waffle, and to write something not only worth reading but enjoyable to read. #
Students really take hold of it as well; they can see the difference in their own writing, and it can get beautifully competitive, especially when they’re trying to beat my reduced word count!
So, to practically develop convincing and compelling writers:
- Practise introductions to questions – it’s also a great springboard into discussion to use this practice as a starter and develop a line of argument from there
- Give lots of vocabulary choices. Word lists, interpretive as well as terminology-based, to ensure that students have the language that they need for a unit. Require that they use it
- Opportunity to redraft with a precise goal – reducing the word count by 30% and not losing any meaning, for example, is often very focusing.
- Give students practical guidance on what to include or avoid
- Practise choosing meaningful elements – identifying the most significant phrase in the paragraph/chapter/novel can be very rewarding, getting students to justify their choices. It’s also great revision
Practical tips for students:
Use the writer’s name – it helps focus on technique, and how the writer is deliberately working
Don’t use the word “quote” or “this suggests” – it forces you to embed quotations more fluently, rather than breaking up the flow of the sentence. Using colons, dashes or brackets to embed quotes can be more productive
Never define or describe – examiners know the terminology; if they don’t, they can look it up. Assume that the examiners know what happens and when.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it shows engagement and enthusiasm for the text
Ban vague phrases including positive/negative, creates a picture in the reader’s mind, makes the reader want to read one. These don’t tell me anything. E.g. a writer uses a description, not to “create a picture” but to suggest the serenity of the setting, indicating the contrast with the character’s inner turmoil.
What is its function in the text? It’s the blue curtain dilemma. Are the curtains blue because the character is so depressed and miserable? If they’re just blue, then why would you bother wasting your time writing about them? Pick something meaningful.
Caroline Spalding’s quote funnel: