Teaching writing is harder than it looks

The Writing Hedge’s Brad Kelly lays out the challenges of teaching writing and encourages teachers to discover the one difference that makes all the difference.

Teaching writing is a more complex act than writing itself. And it pays to understand the difference.

Let’s start with the act of writing

If we were journalists who spent our days writing news stories it’d go a little like this. The editor would assign a story and hand over the brief and information and contact details of the interviewees. We’d gather the information, complete the interviews, make our notes, choose an angle, write in the inverted news pyramid and send the finished story off to the sub-editor. (You can take a breath now). Next story, please editor.

That’s the process.

If we looked inside the brain, things get more interesting.

We’d see our cognitive gears constantly shifting between understanding our topic and angle; between the general and specific; between making judgements and selecting detail; between putting our ideas into an order and then hammering them into shape. 

At the same time, we are using the technical writing skills at our fingertips. We are monitoring the pace, tone and rhythm of our sentences; checking we’ve got the balance between technical language and staying with our audience; we’re riding the wave of metaphor to bring our idea to the shore; we’re making precise and concise vocabulary choices. And much more.

So, writing is a series of thinking and writing choices that are all happening at the same time. The clearer the thinking, the clearer the writing. That’s a lot of moving parts.

Now, let’s talk about teaching.

If we accept all of those moving parts make up the act of writing, the only way to get inside the head of our students is to experience that act of writing by completing an activity we have set for our students.  Otherwise, we’re shouting out instructions about how to ride a bike without ever pedaling ourselves. (Try that).

So, writing is a series of thinking and writing choices that are all happening at the same time.

Add to all the moving parts of writing a few other complexities around teaching writing: the diversity of student understanding of the content; the varying competencies of students as writers; and the fact that many teachers lack confidence and technical writing skill to really give useful feedback to help students write well.

Total all that up – and teaching writing is a more complex act that writing.

If we accept that writing is an expression of thinking – we need to ask better questions about the development of that thinking.

Teaching writing simply evades any attempt to impose a formula on it. Because thinking – like writing – can’t be sanitised.

In your writing improvement journey, the truth north is understanding the one difference that makes all the difference and it’s this. Students write, and teachers teach writing. Big difference.


Teaching writing tip

Use vocabulary to spot thinking.

Sophisticated writing is not big words or long sentences: it is linking ideas together. Linking words are simply the superpower of student writing and thinking.

The thinking required to go into using linking words like ‘because’ ‘however’ or ‘so’ will show you the quality, depth and engagement of the ideas. Using ‘because’ or ‘therefore’ or ‘so’ or ‘as a result’ shows the ability of the student to extend their ideas until they have run out of thinking petrol.

Seeing ‘however’ or ‘but’ or ‘alternatively’ helps us spot how well students have made a counter argument or qualification.

Focusing on linking words or phrases is so simple – but has such an impact. 

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