The impact of the disrupted nature of the last few years is perhaps most felt on the continuity which is key to progression. It is surely harder than ever to get a sense of just what level students transition with from the primary phase, given the gaps in learning and support. And when this is combined with the need for a coherent, reiterative approach to skills building and developing, then a number of focused steps might help. Here are five suggestions for tackling the writing gap in Key Stage 3 English.
1. Embrace the audit
Any perceived ‘writing gap’ should be based on sound evidence. It’s easy to assume it exists, but of course for some students – perhaps those most blessed with a supportive home environment, access to technology and so on – this may not be the case. So, whether it is using transition information plus the tests you have developed in your own departments, or the ones we provide at the start of Year 7,8 and 9 in our KS3 Writing Recovery Teacher Pack, auditing your students’ skill-set should provide valuable pointers in setting targeted recovery. We offer two straightforward writing tasks – one narrative/descriptive, one discursive – and a set of grids (nothing too demanding or complex) to get a broad view of where your students are.
2. Spend time on the hook
It is tempting to think that all your prep needs to be spent on the careful modelling and delivery of skills, but don’t neglect how you will ‘hook’ them in the first place. For those students who have fallen furthest behind their peers, it’s a truism to say that any learning needs to engage them fully. English teachers are endlessly creative, but if someone else has done the imaginative stuff for you, then embrace it. There has always been a bit of a balance to strike between offering activities which reflect students’ own experiences and worlds and taking them beyond that to new texts and explorations. In our pack, we offer both, whether it’s negotiating a fantasy castle, listening to a poem inspired by the sounds in a shell or using gender representation in football management as a way in to teach relative clauses.
3. Use the writing coach approach
Where confidence has dried up as a result of disrupted learning, it helps to start with achievable, fun short steps which build into longer, extended writing and finally, independent work which draws on students’ own creativity. This is hardly news to English teachers, but it’s not always easy to have a ready-made bank of resources to hand. The early units in our pack (the ‘Small steps’ and ‘Strengthening the core’) are the confidence builders that condition the writing mind, while the later units draw on whole text structuring and creation (‘Stretch yourself’ and ‘Fit for purpose’). Think of these as the equivalent of the 5k run – the distance students never thought they could reach, but which these small steps have led to. And to take the analogy a stage further, it is vital to celebrate these achievements. Perhaps you can’t hand out gold medals, but displaying and/or reading out these longer, completed texts as a mark of what even the least confident can achieve will promote resilience.
4. Take the twin track - and more!
Another obstacle to bridging the gap is knowing how to offer progression in multiple areas. How can you improve a student’s grasp of sentence structure while simultaneously developing their understanding of character or mood? What we have tried to do in our pack is have multiple routes through, so that whilst a student might be working on sentences, they are also building understanding of genre, form and purpose. It is vital students see any work in the context of whole texts and purposes, so all our units link to narrative, descriptive or discursive writing.
5. Learn to leap
Beyond all this modulated, careful learning there needs to be something more. As and when you feel students are ready, make room for the blank page – or at least a page with minimal guidance! In our pack, our aim is that all students get to the point where they can write full length stories, vivid descriptions and passionate arguments. But, in one sense, the best outcome for any published resource is when students move beyond it, choosing to write because they want to. It is tempting to think that there is jeopardy in offering such choices to those who have fallen most behind. In fact, the opposite is true: they, more than anyone, deserve the chance to write freely and independently, whether through diaries, video blogs, story competitions, ‘free choice’ topics/projects, student magazines– or whatever.
With the KS3 Writing Recovery Teacher Pack, it was our goal to show that not only have such students closed the gap, they have leapt across it, ready to race ahead – beyond their own expectations.
By Mike Gould
Mike is a former Head of English and an experienced author who has written over 150 books and other resources for teachers and students, including GCSE and IGCSE textbooks and digital support material. He has also been a Senior Lecturer in English and Education, teaching the history of the English language, creative writing and how to apply new technologies to the English classroom.
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