What I’m learning from reading Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler’s ‘The Writing Revolution’: Part 1 — More writing isn’t better writing.

This morning my copy of ‘The Writing Revolution’ by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler arrived at my work. I’ve had my curiosity peaked about this book for some time. Doug Lemov has mentioned it before as being a key text in teaching writing (and it is clear that this book, perhaps not coincidentally, shares a number of key characteristics in its’ organisation and presentation with his seminal Teach Like a Champion). Jo Facer referenced it in her work, Simplicity Rules, where she discusses the increasingly well-known ‘Because, But, So’ activity. There’s a great article about the ‘origin story’ of this book and the people involved in it in this 2012 article from The Atlantic. It also plays into one of the things I’ve sensed about my own teaching for a long time is that one of my biggest weaknesses as a teacher was that, while I could identify and show students what good History work looked like, I found it really hard to explain to students the precise, granular steps that they needed to undertake to write better.

So, I’ve had a chance today to start looking at this book, and already I feel pretty certain that this book may be one of the most important things I’m going to read as a History teacher. Even just from the introduction and first chapter, there is so much that I’ve picked up already. One of the things that’s really good is that, while it is a ‘generic pedagogy’ book, there are lots of History examples which helps make it easier to think about how I’d apply this to my own classroom. As a result of all this, I thought I’d blog about this on a semi-regular basis to give me a record of key learning points and to help me ruminate on how I’m going to implement this when going back into the classroom.

What I’m going to do in this first blog is focus on some bits from the Introduction to the book as well as Chapter 1 and provide a bit of a commentary on what Hochman and Wexler say as it pertains to me as a history teacher and the students I teach. In particular, a big theme of this section is that often we require students to do more writing when they come up to Secondary School, but that this does not lead to better writing on the part of the student and, therefore, is arguably inhibiting the achievement of students especially at the lower end of the attainment scale.

The first key point they make in the introduction is that we need to teach students to write good sentences before we teach them to write good paragraphs. This sounds obvious, but I don’t think I’ve ever done this. I don’t think I’ve ever really sat and got students properly to focus on writing one good history sentence, and then provided feedback on this. I think this is because, first of all, the idea has never really occurred to me and perhaps has seemed a bit simple, a bit primary school-ish, and secondly because students do so much writing in History, that I’ve generally focused more on the writing of longer pieces. What I tend to do is throw out a few writing frames or sentence starters but I think for me it’s always been a bit of a ‘nod’ to inclusion rather than really doing it properly because fundamentally I didn’t really know how to do it properly and a writing frame was better than nothing!

This is clearly a mistake, as the authors go on to suggest. They state that too often, we don’t actually teach writing, but instead we show students good examples of writing in our subject and try to get the students to mimic it. In essence we assume the students will pick it up ‘by osmosis’ (their phrase). This is absolutely the case for me. I will often show students an example 16-mark answer of a top-grade standard and say to them — ‘now you need to try and replicate this for a different question of the same style’. But of course, for many students, especially those who are lower attaining, this is too difficult, even with an example provided. This is quite often because they don’t know how to articulate a good sentence let alone a proper long answer. In addition they often don’t know enough either.

This links back to a broader suspicion about my own teaching — that while I could improve the student by giving them access to more content over the course of their school career, I wasn’t doing enough to help those lower-attaining students actually figure out how to use that knowledge to produce pieces of writing that looked more like the pieces that higher-attaining students could already produce.

The authors make the point that, essentially, as Secondary School teachers (and I think this might be especially true in History) we give students writing tasks above the competency that they’ve developed in primary school. We get them to start writing big chunks of knowledge right away. I have definitely done this. In both of my last two schools, a conclusion I had drawn when I arrived was that students had under-achieved in the subject consistently for a while because they had simply not done enough writing. The solution, therefore, was to do more writing. If they did more writing it would probably contain more knowledge and therefore get more marks. While this is perhaps true, especially for higher-attaining students, at no point was I really thinking about how to do better writing, and fundamentally this is because I wasn’t really sure how I might go about doing that beyond showing them what better writing looks like (e.g., my own).

Another key problem that has held my teaching back is a lack of knowledge about writing and grammar. While reading this book I am constantly having to check the glossary for key terminology. Key words I noted down that I needed to check included (some of these come from Chapter 1 as well as the Intro):

  • Appositives
  • Transitions
  • Sub-ordinating conjunctions
  • Kernel sentences
  • Subject and predicate
  • Command sentences
  • Run-on sentences

We’ve done a lot of work in teaching recently on the development of ‘knowledge-rich’ curricula — yet I would guess that for most of us, our knowledge of the terminology used to describe the organisation of the language we write in every day is pretty poor (certainly mine is). It’s clear to me that one reason why I can’t help students to do better History-writing is that I’ve lacked the vocabulary to explain the key features of better History-writing.

I also don’t know very much at all about how students are taught to write in primary school. Are teachers using this language in primary literacy lessons? Are secondary English teachers using this? Do students know these terms better than I do? I also know, however, that I can’t rely on them to do this for me. One of the other points made is that students will find it hard, especially in the early stages, to transfer knowledge of writing in one discipline over to another discipline, unless we are all using the same vocabulary and terminology.

As I read I’m getting a bit of a crash course in these terms, and what’s great is that it’s already giving me ideas for better tasks that I can use with students. I am moving towards more of the two-page lessons and have set these for remote learning where I’ve made the resources already. Instead of straightforward comprehension questions, I can set them tasks where they need to turn fragments into sentences, or create questions from having read a set of material, or to combine two separate sentences into one big one, or do a because, but, so at the end. The other bonus is that this is not just a pure literacy task. This will help them to learn the History as well as to write better, as they point out in their 3rd of 6 key principles for better writing (‘When Embedded in the Content of the Curriculum, Writing Instruction is a Powerful Teaching Tool’).

To provide some examples, let’s take the following bit of text from a lesson I’m in the process of developing on Migration to Britain before 1066 for Year 7, as part of our thematic study of Migration through Time to open up the curriculum with. The text is largely nicked from the Pearson Monarchs, Monks and Migrants with a bit from the ‘Our Migration Story’ website (which is excellent) and let’s not get into whether there were any such thing as Anglo-Saxons for now!

At the moment, all I’m asking students to do with this information is to consider ‘what did the Anglo-Saxons do to help create England’ and to think about whether the Anglo-Saxons were ‘settlers’ or ‘invaders’. But by using the TWR strategies I could do a lot more — for example:

Activity 1 — Fragments or Sentences

Identify whether the following are fragments (F) or sentences (S)

  1. new tribes began
  2. anglo-saxons came from europe
  3. augustine came to england in
  4. texts like beowulf have had an effect on english literature

For Fragments — turn them into proper sentences correctly punctuated.

For Sentences — correctly punctuate them and (extension) make them better!

The key here is to take away all the punctuation so as not to give away the answers too readily.

Activity 2 — Questions

TASK — Write three questions about the information above.

One of the questions should be in the form of a command and use a term like ‘explain’, ‘describe’ or ‘justify’.

Another example of a task in this vein could be…

Write a question to go with the following answer (a la Jeopardy).

Q_______________________

A — AD 597

So here a question might be ‘When did the Pope send Augustine to England?’ or ‘When did Augustine come to England to develop Christianity?’ A question like ‘When did England become Christian?’ might not be precise enough in this context and helps to expose a possible knowledge issue.

Activity 3 — Sentence combining

Take the sentences below, and turn them into one sentence.

  • The Anglo-Saxons came to England in approximately 450AD.
  • The Anglo-Saxons originally came from places like Germany and Holland.
  • The Anglo-Saxons replaced Celtic gods with their own pagan gods.

This activity helps students to create more knowledgeable sentences, using constructions like appositives in their writing. So in this case, the above could be turned into ‘The Anglo-Saxons, who came to England in approximately 450 AD from places like Germany and Holland, replaced Celtic gods with their own pagan ones.’ It’s easy here to imagine how the challenge could be increased or decreased I think.

Activity 4 — Because, but, so

This is the classic Hochman activity that I think has had the widest popular penetration into the teacher toolkit. The point of this is to help students think about information in different ways and to write accordingly. So, with the above text, you could easily do the following

TASK- Complete the following sentences:

  • The Anglo-Saxons migrated to England, because…[e.g. the land in England was seen as valuable and easy to get hold of after the Romans left]
  • The Anglo-Saxons migrated to England, but…[e.g. they did not manage to take over areas on the fringes of the British Isles like Cornwall, Wales and Scotland]
  • The Anglo-Saxons migrated to England, so…[e.g. the religious beliefs of the population were gradually changed over time].

Again you could upscale this by using a greater variety of words that mean the same as because, but, or so. Also what I really like about this is the way the activity is as challenging as the content you teach — this could easily be applied to an A-level lesson as it could be to a Key Stage 2 History lesson. The task itself also escalates in difficulty — as the authors point out, using the ‘but’ conjunction requires more sophisticated knowledge than the ‘because’ conjunction as it requires you to contrast two different bits of knowledge related to the topic.

The other benefit of these tasks is that it should facilitate better feedback from me. It won’t provide too much to read and I can quickly pick up whether or not student knowledge of the topic is developing as I’d like, as well as, of course, their writing ability. One of the problems I have at the moment is setting too much writing and then drowning in it, so to speak, so therefore not being able to give effective feedback due to time constraints. A ‘less is more’ approach will hopefully work for the students, as well as for me.

Looking ahead, I need to think about and read more about how to effectively step up the challenge through one unit to start with, and then across a series of units, while reinforcing prior techniques learned — in a way that is appropriate to developing good historical writing. I also need to think about how to get a baseline of their writing before getting started to give me some pointers as to things to work on. There are suggestions in the book and I will come back to this in another post. One idea based on something in the book might be something simple like — ‘Write me a paragraph about the Tudors’ or some other topic that they have all likely encountered at primary school (World War 2 as another obvious example here). I’ll also need my senior leaders to see that smaller amounts of writing does not necessarily mean that the work is less challenging. I think this is another way in which we can think ‘more = better’ and it’s patently not the case.

So, to cut a long story short, I’m definitely sold on this book. I’m going to keep reading and hopefully tap out some more blogs about how my thinking is evolving (literally, I’ve only read the introduction and chapter 1 so far) and the impact it’s going to have on the materials I’m preparing for our grand return to school in September — COVID permitting.

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Kristian Shanks

I’m an Assistant Principal (Teaching and Learning) at a Secondary school in Bradford. Also teach History (and am a former Head of History).