Picture the scene. A stuffy classroom on a sunny afternoon and you are approaching the close of your tutoring session, where your lethargic pupils will produce a paragraph as evidence of what they have learnt in the past forty minutes. You set them off and begin reading through the mark scheme, ready to assess. You glance up several minutes later – only to observe that neither of them have written more than five words between them. Sound familiar?
Success in English GCSE is all about writing. If there are no letters on the page, it is impossible for examiners to award any marks. Yet for many, putting pen to paper can be an insurmountable mountain to climb. This can be for a plethora of reasons: language barriers, low confidence or simple laziness are amongst many potential obstacles. Often the hardest part is starting.
Here are some strategies to kickstart writing in reluctant pupils:
- Before you begin:
- Make a plan – The old mantra ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is key. Before they begin, brainstorm ideas in a spider diagram that will provide a scaffold for their writing. When struggling to start, you can reassure them that they have already done the hard part and it can act as a useful reference point if they are stuck.
- Talk it out – Encouraging pupils to begin by vocalising their ideas is essential to good writing. Pie Corbett’s, ‘Talk for Writing’ evidences the expansive benefits of discussion and expression as a pre-writing task; it encourages confidence and allows their ideas to formulate[i]. If they struggle to express the answer verbally, there is a strong likelihood that putting it in writing will be an even greater challenge.
- Picture this – Conjuring up some provocative images can be invaluable in encouraging inspiration. Displaying images can be a useful springboard for descriptive, narrative or persuasive writing.
- Once you are ready to start:
- Give me a prompt – The first few words can be the trickiest challenge. Provide some potential sentence starters that will create momentum for them to carry on. If writing a paragraph analysing language, give an example of how to begin and let them do the rest: In this extract, the writer creates a….
- Up to here – If sluggishness or apathy is an issue when faced with a blank page, mark a point or line on the paper for them to write up to. It can reduce the sense of intimidation and make the task seem more achievable.
- All about acronyms – Using paragraph structures are highly useful when working with struggling pupils; it effectively breaks down paragraphs into attainable chunks that hit the assessment objectives. Common acronyms include PEE (Point, Evidence, Explain), PEAL (Point, Evidence, Analysis, Link) or PETA (Point, Evidence, Technique, Analysis). Enquire about the structure that their English teachers recommend. Scribble the acronym in their margin that they can tick off as they write to enhance a solid structure and an appealing scaffold.
- Increasing engagement:
- Get involved – Write an answer alongside them. There is enormous value in modelling to your pupils the focus, diligence and effort required to write a successful response. It is an effective motivational tool, demonstrating that you willing to share in their challenge and can help dispel distraction.
- Ready, set, go – Incorporate competition and make it fun! Young people are often highly responsive to competitive activities. Ask of your pupils: Which of you will write me the most persuasive paragraph? Who will be the first to cast a spell over their readers with the most dynamic description?
- Two minutes remaining – Use time limits to your advantage. Set a timer and foster a sense of urgency and pace to kickstart getting words on the page. Timely reminders can add that extra boost to motivate them to complete their answers.
If all else fails, never underestimate the power of praise, positivity and encouragement. Often confidence is the biggest stumbling block. Psychologist Carol Dweck has explored the extensive benefits of celebrating effort over ability and developing ‘growth mindsets’ in pupils; reinforcing the idea that anything can be achieved through hard work and diligent effort, rather than natural ability[ii]. Creating an atmosphere where the pen is a friend rather than foe is challenging, but far from unachievable. Each and every small contribution helps to create capable and confident writers.
[i] Corbett, P. and Strong, J. (2011). Talk for Writing Across the Curriculum. Open University Press.
[ii] Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. Constable & Robinson Limited.