Exams 2022: Why teaching writing is essential

How can a secondary school teacher improve GCSE and A-level results? For me, for most subjects, the answer is clear: effective teaching of writing.

Some may frown: students, of course, write in class every day. But I’m talking, more specifically, about teaching students to produce high-quality academic writing, a practice that I believe is lacking in many classrooms.

Early in my teaching career, I noticed that at all grade levels, students’ oral skills outweighed their written skills. When I asked other humanities teachers, they said they found the same thing.

Often, students found essay techniques difficult to master, despite the hours I spent trying to improve them.

I made checklists of the components of an A* paragraph, wrote my own essays, and distributed them to students as exemplary examples. But the results did not improve.

Looking for an evidence-based solution, I realized that I was focusing too much on what good writing entails, rather than explaining how to improve. It is the latter that is at the heart of effective teaching of writing.

To transform my practice, I scoured education research and distilled what I found into different activities that the evidence shows would develop writing skills. Although these activities are very specific, there are seven core principles that I believe are essential for success.

Effective Handwriting Teaching: The Seven Key Principles

The first is that the more frequently students write, the more likely they are to improve. It sounds obvious, but traditionally in the humanities we teach a subject and ask students to write an essay at the end.

However, in-depth writing should be part of the learning process, not just the outcome: it should be incorporated into lessons and assignments.

The second is that teachers should guide the practice of writing for as long as possible: a lot of support is needed at the beginning, before gradually encouraging independent work. Often, I think teachers think they should prioritize writing practice or knowledge recall. This is not the case, they can – and must – occur simultaneously; this is the third principle.

The fourth principle concerns group work: while some activities require students to work alone, their writing skills can also benefit from writing in small groups. And while we don’t just want to show students what great handwriting looks like, teacher modeling has its place in effective handwriting instruction — that’s the fifth principle. Take the time to produce a model paragraph to share: if students perceive you as the expert, they are more likely to take your advice seriously.

The sixth principle concerns feedback: here we should respect Dylan Wiliam’s maxim that “feedback should be more work for the receiver than for the giver”. Traditionally, students receive a grade and a comment. Instead, annotate the essay with questions and ask them to rephrase sections that need improvement before giving a grade.

The final principle concerns self-reflection: students should monitor their own development. After their first writing, they should set goals for improvement and reflect on those goals with each writing they do in the future.

It can be a little intimidating. To start, I would recommend any teacher to set a writing assignment and audit the class to find out what the common and individual weaknesses are. From there, you can choose activities that will fill those gaps. No need to review the things they can already do well. Be sure to constantly assess this and adjust activities as skills develop: you should always focus on the things they find difficult.

How to incorporate handwriting instruction into your classroom

I have a large number of activities that I deploy, but the following are ones that I have found really useful and easily repeatable.

“Judgement Jenga” is the first and is ideal for practicing isolated skills. Often, students have a well-argued and detailed essay, but remain on the fence when it comes to their conclusions. This activity helps them produce assessments that punch holes in weaker lines of argument, without completely destroying the essay.

So, in practice, I give them two one-sided arguments relating to a recently discussed topic, and then, in pairs or threes, they construct an assessment that recognizes the validity of the first argument, while affirming the validity of the second.

Another activity involves modeling and is called “Mark my Words”. With this, I give the students a text that I have personally written – it must be a text with errors – and I ask them to mark it using the evaluation criteria. When they find errors in knowledge or skills, ask them how they would rectify them next.

What has been the impact of all this work? Well, personally, I have seen a huge improvement in students’ academic writing. A few years ago, when I wasn’t teaching it so directly, students saw exam technique as a big end-of-year module, just before exams. But breaking it down into discrete pieces and scattering the teaching throughout the year really does have an impact.

Students are encouraged to reflect quite deeply on their own work: they spend a lot of time reformulating their answers; they learn from their mistakes and build on their writing skills with every lesson. They’re much more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses as writers, and basically that awareness means they’re able to work on the things they find most difficult.

It has been difficult to assess the statistical results: I have been teaching writing for about four years, and I am sure that during this period I have improved in the delivery of activities. But in quantitative terms, I definitely saw an improvement. My colleagues noticed a real difference in the quality of the writing produced, and the writing improved at a much earlier stage in the course, compared to other years.

Robin Hardman was talking to Kate Parker, content producer for schools and colleges at Your. He directs school policy in South West London and is the author of The Writing Game: 50 evidence-based writing activities for GCSE and A levels

Scott R. Banks