For many high school teachers, teaching students how to write can be a challenge. I have often found it a challenge to have my students write sustained pieces of text. But in recent weeks I have had some successes.
I have a Year 7 science class that consists of students who need additional support in literacy. Many of these students are also learning English as a second language. One of the first things they learn in Year 7 is to write an experiment report (Think back to high school science. It is the report that has Aim, Equipment, Method, Results, Conclusion). This week they completed their assessment task on writing an experiment report on an experiment they did that separated sand and salt. I was so impressed that all students were able to write the experiment report independently. In previous times I have had other students who had higher literacy skills that could not do it as well as these Year 7s. So what did I do different?
I have used the strategy of deconstruction, group construction and independent construction for a few years now. Whenever we need to write something, we look at an example first and deconstruct the structure and language features of the text. Then we try to write one together as a class and in small groups. This is followed by the students writing independently. I have always emphasised purpose and audience when I set a writing task for my students.
In the past many students still struggled with the last step of writing independently. What I did different this time was to provide students with more opportunities of writing independently and marking their work immediately during the lesson. In high school we often mark student work after the lesson and provide students with written feedback. From this experience I found that marking the piece of writing with the student watching and getting the student to correct their writing then and there is more beneficial than collecting the students’ work, marking it then having the student read the written corrections and comments. I used the strategy of getting the students to read out a sentence/paragraph that contains a mistake. Nine times out of ten, they pick up the mistake when they read it out loud. You cannot do this if the feedback is delayed. The opportunity for students to self correct would have passed.
I followed a very similar process with my Year 10s. My Year 10s are writing a persuasive text on whether space research is a waste of money. Like the Year 7s we looked at a sample persuasive text to analyse the structure and language features. They then worked in small groups to write a persuasive text on whether they believed the Big Bang theory explains the origin of the universe. Like the Year 7s I marked their writing with them. Since they had 1:1 laptops I used Track Changes and Comments in Microsoft Word to make corrections and record comments on what they have done well and what they need to improve on while I’m speaking to them. Students also marked each other’s writing using marking criteria.
In light of these reflections I think immediate feedback is the key. Teachers need to provide students with more opportunities to discuss their work with them and with other students very shortly after completing the task. Once again the difficulty of implementing this will be time and the pressure to ‘teach the content’. But the way I see it, what is the point of ‘pushing through the content’ when students cannot clearly articulate their understanding.