This week, we were excited to welcome author and education consultant Matt Glover to our school for professional development regarding children’s writing. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him. His ideas make perfect sense, can easily be implemented and will make a huge difference to my students and their writing. I like to use my blog for reflecting on PD because I can share the main take-aways while consolidating the ideas in my own mind. It’s important to note that the ideas below are also supported by other writing experts and can be applied to any age group.
Here are ten lessons learnt from an afternoon with Matt Glover:
Teach conventions and composition in parallel
It is a widespread mistake to insist on perfect conventions (spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.) before teaching and celebrating composition. The two should be taught in parallel. In his presentation, Matt shared a range of children’s writing samples that clearly demonstrated the lack of connection between the two. It is possible for students to show strength in one area without the other. For example, a student who writes with poor spelling and punctuation could still be composing their sentences in advanced ways (or vice versa). Let’s look for, and celebrate, both. Neither one has to be mastered before the other.
Students should “read like a writer”
Children should be taught to carefully consider what other writers do. This is a habit that should be enforced over time. As young readers start to notice what published writers do, they should experiment with the same techniques in their own writing. ‘Reading for writing’ is different from ‘reading for reading’ and requires a more purposeful, focused approach.
Provide a stack of published examples
Students will struggle to write in a particular style/genre unless they have a vision for the final result. Matt Glover insists that teachers prepare a stack (approximately 5-8) of high-quality, carefully-selected published examples. These should reflect the outcomes that you expect from the children. As well as providing the vision, these examples should be used to highlight particular writing techniques. Teachers should model how they can adopt the same techniques and, finally, students should do the same. The stack can be continually referred to throughout the unit.
Correcting and reminding are not the same as teaching
There’s a place in teaching for correcting students’ work and offering reminders of what they should do. However, neither of these approaches will teach the students. Correcting/reminding will be ineffective without explicit teaching. The workshop model (outlined later) provides opportunities for personalised, one-to-one teaching.
Almost always, provide a choice of topic
By having a choice, students will choose a topic that is interesting and motivating for them. Whatever genre or technique you are teaching, you will be able to do so regardless of the topics chosen. If you are teaching persuasion, for example, it doesn’t matter what they persuade about. Whether they persuade others to look after the environment, get a dog, or allow YouTube in school, they will still learn to write persuasively. Although there is value in connecting the writing to another area of learning, students should still have a choice the first few times. The connection can be saved for a summative writing piece.
Occasionally provide a choice of genre
Many schools organise their writing units by genre. It is important for children to develop their understanding and appreciation of genres. However, there is also value in occasionally offering choice. Matt recommends having at least one unit in the year that is not genre-specific. This will allow the students to demonstrate their learning in a genre that is motivating and engaging for them. Examples (from Matt) of units that are not genre-specific include: where writers get ideas, how writers use punctuation as a crafting tool and how writers make paragraphing decisions.
Uncover your students’ secret writing habits
Be cautious of labelling your students as ‘reluctant writers’. Many students are just unmotivated by school assignments but enjoy writing at home. It is possible that your students have secret writing habits outside of school that you don’t know about, such as writing songs or creating comic books. If your children are secret writers, find out! These preferred genres can be utilised in school to motivate and engage those students. As an advocate of Genius Hour, I know how rewarding it is to tap into students’ hobbies, interests and passions. Bringing these into the classroom is wonderfully beneficial.
Good writers will transfer their skills to different contexts
Many schools around the world require students to take standardised writing tests. These usually involve a writing prompt and a time limit. Matt warns teachers not to ‘teach to the test’. If we teach students to be good writers, they will be able to transfer their understanding to this test type, but the same cannot be said the other way around. If we teach children to create the perfect timed test piece, this is insufficient preparation for other contexts. There’s a difference between improving the writing and improving the writer.
However, it would also be unfair not to prepare students for the test conditions. We still need to do a practise test or two so that students don’t have to ‘go in blind’.
The most effective way to become a better writer is to write regularly
Just like reading, we become better writers through regular writing. Bloggers like me don’t require any research or evidence of this. We have experienced it through our own work. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly good writer, but I can see a difference between my latest and oldest blog posts. Click here to read my earliest posts from March 2016. I think that you’ll notice a difference after just a couple of years. As well as the final products, take my word for it that the writing process has become a lot easier and more fluent. For this reason, Matt (and many other experts) recommend the workshop model for teaching writing.
Adopt the workshop model
The workshop model is not a new idea and it is not specific to Matt Glover. This instructional model has proven to be effective because it acknowledges the above point that students become better writers through regular writing. In the workshop model, the majority of the lesson is dedicated to independent writing. A 5-10 minute mini-lesson can be used to introduce an idea at the beginning, but the key word here is ‘introduce’. After ten minutes (maximum), we need to stop talking. They do not need to master the content of the mini-lesson. Get students writing! Teachers should also dedicate a similar amount of time at the end to reflecting and sharing, but students should be writing for most of the lesson time. The value of the workshop model is in the one-to-one conferencing during the independent writing time. Through conferencing, teachers can offer personalised support to students by discussing their writing and ‘nudging’ towards a new goal. It is important to focus on one new teaching point at a time. Any other areas of weakness can be noted and saved for another conferencing session (be sure to have a section in your conferencing document to take note of these future teaching points).
I hope that these ten points are helpful to you. For more information, Matt’s 2012 book (co-written with Mary Alice Berry) comes highly recommended. I will also read Reading with Meaning by Debbie Miller. I am keen to implement these proven practices for the benefit of my students.
How do you improve your students’ writing? How do you develop and maintain their enthusiasm for writing? Please leave a comment below with any advice and/or book recommendations. As always, your input is appreciated.
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