Righting Writing #2: What does it mean to make progress in writing?

104871401I’ve always had a problem with the National Curriculum levels for MFL in all of their incarnations.  Unsurprisingly, I’m not alone.  There are a number of things that trouble me about them.  The number one bit of nonsense is to take everything from complete novice to native speaker and then somehow section off the yawning chasm that exists between the two extremes into 8 neat levels.  Hardly comparable, then, with other subjects where the ‘native’ extreme doesn’t exist.  Hardly realistic, either, to expect anyone ever to make it from Level 1 to Level 8 within the three years of Key Stage 3.   Someone had enjoyed a liquid lunch a little too much before they went back to the office and dreamt that one up…

To be fair, I know I couldn’t write a better set of NC Levels.  I know because I’ve had a bash at it a few times and I’ve never been satisfied with the result.  Like many others, I’ve tried to translate them into ‘pupil-friendly speak’ (as if NC Levels could be friendly to pupils) and then added in a few bits and pieces to various levels which I felt should be recognised but weren’t.  It’s always been unwieldy for anyone using NC Levels, but most difficult of all, it’s almost impossible to achieve consistency across a department.  Yes, we can spend long hours in moderating meetings, but I seriously question the usefulness of that time when there is so much more we could be doing to improve our teaching techniques.  Now that I go into schools quite a bit on consultancy visits and talk to delegates at conferences, it is completely clear to me that if it was almost impossible to achieve consistency across one department in one school, it’s absolutely impossible to achieve it across different schools.  In one school the mere mention of one verb in two different tenses (just the once) is evidence of Level 5.  In another, only if the teacher is clear that the pupil could produce a past tense verb that they haven’t actually been given (to demonstrate that they know how to form the tense for themselves).  That’s a huge difference.  Then, of course, there is the (understandable in the circumstances) reluctance in some departments to be too generous in the awarding of higher levels for the simple and depressing reason that their line managers are obsessed with seeing the numbers go up and life is made very difficult for the teacher when their pupils’ levels don’t continue to rise at the same rate: Pupils can usually go from Level 1 to Level 3 in no time. Then it starts to slow down and eventually grind to a halt, especially as they’re not going to become native standard by the end of Year 9 and they’ve still got two years to go.  “All pupils should progress by a level and half every year” – have you heard that one?  Nonsense.

I’m not, of course, arguing against assessment.  Not for a minute.  Just that where so much importance is put on it – for deeming departments to be failing, for targeting specific pupils (do data-obsessed responsibility-laden managers realise just how threatening that sounds?!), for deciding whether a pupil should be moved up or down a set, for comparing them with other students or with themselves, and so on and so on – surely, surely, surely the least that one should expect is that the data used to justify these decisions needs to be reliable.  Don’t you think?

And the obsession with constant measuring needs to be countered with a lesson from the sunflower:  you can measure a sunflower every day, every hour if you like, but it won’t make it any bigger.  We can assess, analyse, compare, target… but it won’t move pupils on.  That’s not what does it.

My final little grouse, before I offer something a bit more positive, is the order of progression that the NC Levels prescribe.  Anyone who uses classroom routines a lot will know that it is perfectly possible to get pupils, even pupils considered ‘weak’ (for want of a much better word) to use quite complex structures accurately, confidently and fluently at a fairly early stage.  (Some examples of this will feature in a later post).  Such structures may well be typical of Level 5, 6 or 7, but the pupils may still be struggling with other more basic language in other areas.  So what level do you give them?  Should their achievement be ignored simply because they haven’t got there in the prescribed order?

What follows was my attempt to help myself.  I’ve never published this before and I hesitate slightly to do this now.  This has only ever been for my own use, I’ve never imposed it or shared it in the departments I’ve worked in, and it’s not intended as a substitute for NC Level descriptors or GCSE mark schemes.  Why?  Because it’s far from perfect.  It’s a grid which represents how a student might progress in their writing skills.  Its purpose is simply to help me get my head around where a pupil is now, how far they have come and where they can head next.  It makes no pretensions of being complete, it has no numbered levels, I don’t write anything down on the basis of it, but it is reasonably specific.  I use it to help me work out what advice to give as I mark work and I take the opportunity to have a quick flick back in their book at previous work and previous comments to see if they have taken on board the advice I gave last time.  It works for me, it may not work for you, but I’m happy to share what I’ve done.  This is it, and please read the explanatory notes after it:  (and you can download a version in Word here: Progression in Writing Skills).

Progression in Writing Skills

I’m interested to see whether over time pupils are writing longer, more accurately and with greater complexity.  Creativity gets a worthy mention, because the content of what they write is every bit as important as form.  (Otherwise, we’d be back to ‘O’ Levels).  It’s set out as a grid, because it’s the easiest way to fit it on a page, but there is no suggestion that the boxes on any one row are supposed to be in any way similar or ‘the same level’.  It’s better, therefore, to read down the columns rather than across.  Sometimes I’ll have a student who will write a whole side of A4 of total drivel where their creativity is best expressed in how many different ways they can avoid getting a verb right (sorry, but it’s true) and another who is remarkably accurate but hasn’t shared more than a few lines of their pearls of wisdom with me.  In short, they may be all over the place on the grid, but that is why it helps me to know where to give them advice.

As I said, I put this together for my own benefit, so a couple of explanatory notes might be helpful.

Spelling: it starts off with extremely dodgy accuracy, where I can understand it only because I teach the student and I know what they mean, and it progresses to where another teacher could pick up the piece of work and in spite of the mistakes, they too could understand it.  We’re talking weak, but it’s progress nevertheless, and it needs to be noticed and recognised.  We move on: ‘generally accurate’, a bit more than 50:50.  ‘Mostly accurate’ …er… a fair bit more than 50:50!

Grammar:  I’ve divided this between ‘transfer’ and ‘application’.  I teach grammar differently to some, in that the use comes first and the rules come later in the process.  I lead pupils towards discovering the rules so that at the end of the process (or the end of each stage of the process), the rules simply define what they already understand and can use.  If you’ve got about 4 hours to kill, you can find out all about it here.  (Subtle plug).  So the distinction between transfer and application is useful for me.  By ‘transfer’ I’m referring to when a pupil has picked up a structure through classroom interaction and by their own volition and desire to communicate they have chosen to make use of it in another context or situation.  They may well have changed the odd bit of vocabulary to fit the new context, but I’m not particularly looking for grammatical knowledge, so much as the effort made to transfer structures across topics and situations at least reasonably successfully.  And because I know what routines they are using as a class, I can recognise a transferred structure in a way that someone who doesn’t teach them can’t.  To me, it’s a hugely important step when they realise they can do this and want to, and it’s also the sort of assessment that only their own teacher can do.  By ‘application’, I am now referring to grammatical knowledge.  The structure they use may well involve transfer from another context, but the fact that they have inflected verbs, adjectives, changed auxiliaries, observed appropriate word order, etc., to serve their communicative needs is clear to me, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy.  I want to recognise attempts, including unsuccessful ones.

Vocabulary/Language:  I want to recognise the effort made to use the stimulus I give them for the vocabulary and language they need.  Before they make a dash for a dictionary or Google Translator (spit!), I want them to see their exercise book and the activities we have done up to that point as their main source for language.  This has implications for my planning: I need to anticipate the writing activity coming up some time before we get there in other activities we do.  Ideally, the activity should be the natural next step from what has gone before.  As we proceed through whatever sequence we have planned, I also need to think about what it will all look like in pupils’ books, not necessarily in terms of exercises or vocabulary lists (which can do the job, but are pretty uninspiring when it comes to revision), but how a speaking activity or reading activity is recorded.  This could be copies of any stimulus used in a speaking activity, for example.  You will find some examples of this as we go through this series.  They will need to use a dictionary at some point (more planning implications – dictionary skills still need to be taught, and it’s always best when that teaching arises out of another activity – more on this later, too).  Even better than using a dictionary, though, (I think) is paraphrase, where pupils use the language they know to describe something they don’t know how to say.  In terms of language skills or communicative/strategic competence, this is real progress, even if it makes the written piece a bit wordy or difficult to read.

Creativity:  I’m not sure you can really ‘mark’ creativity (says one who would like to understand art, but doesn’t – I’ve always struggled to understand how a painting which, to me, looks like a masterpiece of skill, as real as a photo, can struggle in an auction against something more modern, like half a pint of vomit on a canvas which goes for a million.  But then, as a former line-manager once enlightened me, I’m a ‘cultural low-brow’…!).  As a minimum, I hope the student will have something to say in what they write.  It can be somewhat difficult for a student to be creative in a piece which depends on a single grammatical structure (which is a good reason for using wide-ranging classroom routines – more on this in an upcoming post), but it may be possible – it’s always worth having a go ourselves first at anything we set a class to do.  That needs recognising.  And sometimes, although it is difficult to specify exactly how, a piece of work can be imaginative and very impressive.  From what you know of a student and how they usually work, this piece represents real progress, it’s obvious that they have engaged with it, put their heart and soul into it, even though it may be far from perfect.

Well, that’s it, I hope it’s useful.

Next time, an activity and materials to use in the first week back after Christmas with Year 9.

The Target Language Classroom

3 thoughts on “Righting Writing #2: What does it mean to make progress in writing?

    • Thanks for your question, Tim. By routines I’m referring to situations which occur naturally (or which can be set up to occur) and frequently that we can exploit linguistically. For example, taking/answering the register, winning/losing a game, catching each other out (cheating, speaking in English, making mistakes), justifying lateness or not having completed homework, etc. At an early stage the class is very dependent on the teacher, but increasingly find their independence and transfer structures across situations. There are some example in the ‘Mind the Gap’ post and in the ‘Where’s the Dog?’ series (a game we play!). Pardon the plug, but the All Aboard! All Abroad! DVD series (see Publications page) looks in depth at setting up routines. Towards the end of this series, I’ll put up some more detail on routines. Hope that helps!

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