Persuasive Writing: An Alternative Approach?

At the start of this year, I picked up a very able Year 10 class who were exceptionally well taught in Year 9; as a result they are focussed on their work, think perceptively about texts, and their oracy skills are well-developed. There is, of course, the occasional forgotten homework or mis-timed comment, but, in general, they are an absolute dream to teach. Last term they excelled in their work on An Inspector Calls, writing thoughtful and thorough essays in which they demonstrated genuine engagement with the text.

All of this sounds idyllic, and as a literature specialist I revel in teaching such classes. But the group presented me with a problem as we progressed onto our persuasive writing unit: how to teach them to write in a way that would allow me to nurture and celebrate their individuality, creativity, and enthusiasm? How could I avoid giving them the impression that it is necessary to follow prescribed formulae (AFOREST, DAFOREST, INAFOREST…), but which would run the risk of quashing this group’s independence of thought?

In search of an answer, I returned to two of my favourite resources: Jennifer Webb’s Teach Like a Writer and Freya Odell’s blog (specifically her work on mentor texts). When I first saw Jenny speak at the TeachMeet English Icons conference in 2020, I was struck by her explanation of how we should enable our students to be journalists, essayists, novelists, and so on rather than simply focussing on training them to churn out a response to a persuasive or creative writing question in 45 minutes. In the introduction to Teach Like a Writer, Jenny writes that:

Writing is reaching out. […] People who can successfully communicate have capacity to change things, to campaign, and to show their worth and talent. […] Writing a newspaper article in 30 minutes on a completely alien topic with no preparation, research or moral imperative is […] ridiculous. (pp.16-17)

Jenny’s passion for teaching writing in a meaningful way really resonated with me, and dovetails with Freya’s discussion of mentor texts in her TM English Icons talk in 2021. I have tried to apply their ideas several times now with a range of classes of different ages and prior attainments, and each time my attempts have been thwarted by a Covid lockdown falling in the middle of the scheme of work. So this time round I was determined to finally see it through, combining Jenny and Freya’s ideas into a much more ambitious scheme of work than the one I have used in the past.

Phase 1: test students’ knowledge

Before embarking on my new plan and ditching my old scheme altogether, I gave my students a 30-minute baseline writing task on a topic they knew well and that I knew most of them had an interest in. Because it was November, I selected Remembrance Day for this task, and gave students free choice of whether to write a newspaper article (either historical or modern), a letter home from the Front, or a speech to persuade listeners to donate money to a charity for war veterans. Some students found the idea of choice challenging, and so I did provide some guidance where necessary. The result was 33 pieces of writing of a good standard, in which students demonstrated their ability to deploy their growing vocabulary and a range of language devices:

Students annotated their own writing, and then that of their partner, to demonstrate an understanding of how and why they had used language and structure to convince their readers. I was pretty happy with the outcome, and so decided to proceed…

Phase 2: Introducing Aristotelian Rhetoric

At this point, I explained that “writing is reaching out”, and so we were going to build up to writing one excellent article which would give them the opportunity to find their authentic voice. I explained that we were going to start as all expert writers do: by reading and exploring how other writers construct their texts. As the class are concerned about succeeding in exams, we looked at the GCSE mark scheme very briefly, and discussed how perfecting our craft would help us to achieve this too. Then, I introduced the concept of Aristotelian rhetoric. This helped us to explore the idea that non-fiction writing can be fuelled by a desire to communicate a set of values and ideas, and also to understand how to combine building a strong evidence base with an appreciation of engaging our readers’ emotions.

Phase 3: Reading

Taking inspiration from the authors Freya references in her blogpost, I selected some challenging pieces of non-fiction writing to read with the class. As we grappled with these texts, I used a number of reading comprehension strategies to ensure students’ grasp of the topics, and then we delved into the complexities of the writers’ language and structures. An article by George Monbiot provided an excellent example of how to use a motif to bring coherence to an article, whilst another article by Arwa Madhawi exemplified the use of argument and counter-argument. Many of you will have read a recent article on the topic of GCSE text choices, written by young person and published in the NEU magazine; reading this with the class helped me to show them that there is a readership for writing by people their age.

As we read, we made a note of any sentence structures, language devices, overarching structural features that we liked – perhaps because these phrases or conventions were elegant, persuasive, nuanced, punchy, or memorable. When we came to writing our own articles, we returned to this list, and students adapted the devices for their own texts.

Phase 4: Planning and Research

I then explained that students were going to write their own articles, and had free choice of topic. Whilst half the class were excited by this prospect, I had to forestall panic from the other half – and so I provided them with a list of suggested starting points.

Students then created their own title and proposal. This included an outline of their article, and also the research they planned to undertake (for example, most students interviewed a friend, family member, or teacher, and so submitted a list of questions). Once I had “signed off” the proposal, they could conduct their research for homework.

Phase 5: The First Draft

Students had about a week to complete research, and were instructed to bring it to the lesson. I then gave them 45 minutes to write up the first draft of their article. Before they did this, they drew wide margins in their books for peer and teacher comments. In the next lesson, we returned to the concept of Aristotelian rhetoric, and students annotated their partner’s work accordingly. I then collected the books and marked them, focussing on only writing comments that would enhance the students’ work for the second draft.

Phase 6: The Second (and Third) Draft

One aspect of teaching English that is often lost between primary and secondary level is the concept of redrafting and editing – and this process provided the ideal opportunity to remind students that writing is not about achieving a finished product on the first attempt. While in lessons I moved on to teaching the next topic, my students typed up their articles and improved them independently. The second draft submitted, I marked them again and returned them – this time with only minor changes. Students added pictures and formatted their articles, and I compiled them into one document.

Phase 7: Finding a Readership

Following Jenny’s advice from her TM Icons talk, I told the students early on that I would be finding readers for their work; this helped to give them focus as they had an audience to impress. In the absence of a school blog or magazine, I asked several members of the Senior Leadership Team to read the students’ work, and they provided feedback either verbally to the class, or in the form of a summary to share with the group. I also printed out all the students’ work and updated the displays on our English corridor, and asked students’ permission to share their work here. Next time round, I will definitely be looking for more formal ways to publish students’ work – whether that means setting up a departmental blog (the dream!) or finding essay competitions for students to enter. But for now, I enjoyed the buzz of excitement as students arrived at my lesson and saw their work on the walls outside – not inside the classroom for us to look at, but in the corridor for the whole school and our visitors to peruse.

Phase 8: Evaluation

Personally, I found that teaching “the persuasive writing unit” in this way was much more interesting and fulfilling for me as a teacher, but it did mean holding my nerve somewhat. Usually, my students’ books would be filled with snippets of writing on a range of topics; in comparison, for this sequence of lessons, their books looked a little lacking as much of our time was spent reading, talking, or refining one article. Of course there are aspects of this sequence of lessons that I would tweak next time round. However, fundamentally I believe that this method of teaching helped me to shift my students’ understanding of what a non-fiction text is “for” – as they found their voices and used them to express their values, they realised that writing is about uniting something worth saying with the most appropriate form and words. They certainly enjoyed the opportunity to take time over a piece of work that they were invested in, and which they were proud of. If “writing is reaching out”, they definitely relished the opportunity to do so.

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