This blogpost is a version of an article I have written for my school’s Teaching and Learning handbook. I strongly recommend you read The Writing Revolution; it is a fabulous resource to have to hand when planning lessons.
First published in 2017, The Writing Revolution (TWR)by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler provides teachers with classroom-ready activities for developing students’ abilities to articulate increasingly complex ideas. These strategies can be explicitly taught through quality explanation, and then used as part of knowledge retrieval activities, to check student understanding, and to provide scaffolding, support, and challenge for all learners. Many of us have found, as Doug Lemov explains, that students often do not “have control of a sufficient number of syntactic forms and tools to capture and express complex thoughts”. TWR aims to use direct instruction and deliberate practice to empower students with these syntactic forms and tools, giving them to freedom to articulate their ideas clearly, precisely, and in detail. Where teachers use TWR, they find that student confidence increases, the fluency and quality of their writing improves, and they demonstrate a greater complexity of thought.
As you will discover below, the initial teaching of TWR strategies may take time and patience, and it may feel as if little progress is being made as you are focussing on building individual sentences. However, once the building-block of the sentence is secure, students will make faster progress when they move on to writing extended answers. In subjects which do not require extended written answers (such as mathematics, for example), these strategies are still useful as, for example, students can use them to articulate their methodology in completing a calculation.
The Writing Revolution Principles
The Writing Revolution is guided by 6 basic principles (see page 8 of TWR), of which the first 4 are most applicable across the curriculum:
- “Students need explicit instruction in writing”: we cannot assume that they will be able to construct a sentence. Even the most able of students will need guidance on this, as their sentences may be unfocussed and overly complex.
- “Sentences are the building blocks of all writing”:in addition to providing students with vocabulary to unlock key concepts, we also need to show students how to build this vocabulary into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs and essays.
- We should “embed writing instruction in curriculum content”: not only will this support retention and retrieval of knowledge, but students write better when they know the topic.
- “Curriculum content drives rigor of writing activities”: the activities below are best used when adapted to the subject content.
What is Deliberate Practice?
TWR methodology entails deliberate practice, which allows students to improve their skills and is best conducted in silence to allow for maximum concentration. The activities should have specific and clear goals (e.g. to add detail using the conjunction “because”), and should gradually build to link together separate goals in order to develop schema. Deliberate practice works well when done regularly and frequently in short, intense bursts (perhaps around 5-10 minutes).
Because / But / So
This activity supports students in developing the detail and complexity of their sentences, and can be adapted for a range of different topics. It can be used across the key stages, and completed orally, on mini-whiteboards, or in exercise books. The chat function on Teams was used to generate the examples below during remote teaching.
Step 1: ask students to write down a one-sentence answer.
e.g. What is the poem “Climbing My Grandfather” about?
Selected student response: The poem is about a grandson getting to know his grandad.
Step 2: Discuss this sentence with the students, perhaps comparing it to a WAGOLL.
e.g. What is good about the sentence? It gives a clear answer to the question. It is grammatically correct, and has a capital letter and a full stop.
What could be developed about this sentence? It does not give any additional information and is quite brief.
Step 3: Model expanding the sentence using because / but / so.
Keep the sentence stem the same, and add different endings depending on the connective.
The poem is about a grandson getting to know his grandad because the poet wants to show how important relationships are to people’s wellbeing.
The poem is about a grandson getting to know his grandad, but he finds it difficult because of the age gap.
The poem is about a grandson getting to know his grandad so that they can improve their relationship and build a strong bond.
Step 4: Repeat and practice as necessary, using the we do/you do structure.
e.g. We do:
Step 5: Continue to practice through a range of activities.
Here are a series of activities used over the course of 6 weeks to ensure that students were habitually and confidently expanding their sentences effectively:
- Taking the register: display a sentence stem or prompt on the screen (see below). Instead of answering the register with the name, each student responds with a full sentence based on the prompt. Keep this low stakes and straightforward, connected to the topic, and give lots of praise.
- Knowledge retrieval: after explicitly teaching, give students sentence stems to expand during knowledge retrieval.
- Checking understanding: after reading or completion of a task, give students a sentence stem to expand (e.g. In the extract, Hyde was presented as violent because/but/so…). Pay particular attention to the “but” sentence, as this can often provide evidence of misconceptions.
- Whole class feedback: this could be used after a dedicated because/but/so task, or as part of WCF on a longer piece of writing. In the example below, students ranked the responses from the most to the least successful.
- Checklists and criteria for excellence: include because/but/so on the checklists you already use to scaffold extended writing.
- WAGOLLS: provide and discuss WAGOLLS for the activities suggested above. Also develop a habit of using because/but/so when you are writing any WAGOLL so that students can see the strategy used in a variety of contexts and can understand how these expanded sentences can be incorporated into a longer piece of writing.
- Avoiding “dead time”: after first teaching, a because/but/so activity can take 5 minutes and can provide a useful summary activity at the conclusion of a lesson when you need to fill a bit more time.
- Independent learning: set a forms quiz in which students are provided with sentence stems to complete.
Using subordinating conjunctions
Once students are confident on because / but / so, use the same strategies to teach the following subordinating conjunctions. These will help students to sequence their ideas, and also to deepen the complexity of their thinking:
- Before e.g. Before completing the experiment, I need to…
- After e.g. After I complete the experiment, I need to…
- If e.g. If x happens during the experiment, then…
- When e.g. When the liquid reaches x temperature, then…
- Even though e.g. Even though I am measuring the temperature, I need to…
- Although e.g. Although this temperature change may be due to …, it may also be because of…
- Since e.g. Since there is only one variable in this experiment…
- While e.g. While the liquid is heating up, I must…
- Unless e.g. Unless I use a control, the experiment will be…
- Whenever e.g. Whenever the liquid reaches boiling point…
Expanding sentences further
Once students are confident in using a range of conjunctions to expand on their ideas, help them to take the next step in ensuring that they include all the necessary information in their writing. Complete the steps below after teaching new information, or perhaps when preparing an extended response.
Step 1: Create a kernel
e.g. Churchill gave a speech.
Ensure your kernel sentence is directly related to the topic you are studying. Discuss this sentence with the class: what information is missing? What could be added?
Step 2: Introduce the question words.
You may wish to select two or three of these question words, depending on your kernel sentence. Check that students know the answers to these words (perhaps through knowledge retrieval, think-pair-share, etc).
e.g. When did Churchill give his speech? What was the speech about? Why did he give his speech?
Step 3: Model how to expand the kernel sentence
When modelling the sentence expansion, you will be faced with a number of different possibilities and it may be that you start the expansion and then find yourself adapting it. There is no problem with doing this, as long as you explain your decision-making process.
Top tip: always start with when.
Step 4: Deliberate practice through we do/you do.
Present students with a number of examples to work through together, and then to complete independently. You could also use images or diagrams as prompts for this.
Step 5: Continue to practice through a range of activities.
See the above suggestions for because/but/so.
Whilst it may take some time to teach and embed the knowledge of sentence expansion with your students, it is critical that we build strong foundations to enable low prior attaining students to articulate their ideas, and high prior attaining students to give shape and order to their thoughts. While doing this, however, we cannot forget James Britton’s observation that “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” – and so sentence expansion should be rehearsed orally as well as on paper.