Righting Writing #4: Starting at the End

87717614In this post, I’m going to set out the detail of a writing assessment activity for KS3 and then in the next post, I’ll make a start on describing the speaking, listening, reading and writing activities, techniques and materials I use which lead up to it.  It’s a 6-week unit for a mixed-ability class in Year 8 or 9 on healthy living, which culminates in an extended writing piece.  If you haven’t read the introduction to this series, please take a look at that first or you’ll miss what I’m trying to do!  In a tiny nutshell this is it, (but please read the full introduction), I want to get my students to produce some extended writing, appropriate to their age and level, but I don’t want to overdose on writing all the way through the unit or bang on all the time about there being a written assessment at the end.  Involvement, spontaneity, learning styles, motivation to communicate and quick thinking are just some of the things I want to foster or include over the 6 weeks which is not easily achieved in a mixed-ability group when writing dominates.  And I want to do it all through the target language.  This post and the others in this series will serve as an example of how I think writing fits into a communicative approach to language teaching.  So here’s the plan:

The end-of-unit assessment activity will be for pupils to write either a poster for the PE Department Corridor/Gym or a ‘My Story’ article for a glossy magazine.  Like all writing activities, I think it should have a sense of Text (T), a sense of Audience (A) and a sense of Purpose (P):

Sense of Text  We hardly ever write in normal life with no idea of what sort of text we’re writing.  Whether it’s a shopping list, an e-mail, a letter of application, a story, a list of instructions or whatever, the type of text it is influences how we write.  So pupils need to have it clear in their minds the type of text they’re writing.  Without that, it’s difficult to engage with the activity and rather pointless.  In this case, it’s a poster or a ‘My Story’ article.

Sense of Audience  Again, whenever we write, it is intended that someone will read it, even if it’s only ourselves.  A note to a friend, a boss, a colleague we know, a colleague we don’t, a potential employer will have a different tone according to its intended audience and, in many languages this will also determine which person of the verb is used and the corresponding verb forms.   If a piece is written only for the teacher to mark it, only a small minority of pupils will get excited about it, and they really should get out more.  The teacher can, of course, be a worthy audience, but then pupils should be clear that they are writing to the teacher, which is not the same as ‘writing to nobody but the teacher will read it when the work gets marked’!  Here, the poster is for visiting exchange students and the article is either for sending to the partner school or to the class next door in your own school.

Sense of Purpose  The purpose of writing a shopping list is so you don’t forget what you need to buy.  The purpose of writing an instruction manual or a recipe is so that someone else learns how to operate something or make something that you know, but they don’t.  It’s a very different piece of writing to when I need to persuade someone to do something or to complain that they haven’t or find out if they have.  I have found that writing activities work much better with a class when they know why they are writing the piece.  I’m not keen on making a big deal about a piece of work being an assessment.  I think doing so often arises from the suspicion that the class won’t take the piece of work seriously otherwise, and if we are being judged on how well they are doing, the necessity feels all the greater.  However, I’m not convinced that they become better writers of another language just because it’s an assessment.  (If anything, I’ve known quite a few pupils will avoid it.  Terrible how the flu hits on the day of an assessment…..).  There are better purposes we can come up with for why the students are to write the piece.  In this case, their immediate purpose is to set out what their own lifestyle is like in terms of food, drink and exercise, so that later we can compare and find out who has the healthiest lifestyle.  Depending on how you want to run it, it could be that someone in the class next door writes back or maybe a pupil in the partner school abroad, but the idea is that someone reads it and responds to what they read.

Below you’ll find 3 examples of what some of my students did, one in French, two in Spanish.  All were in Year 9 at the time and they began their secondary learning of the language at the beginning of Year 8 (there was a middle school system in the area at the time).  French was taught in the local middle schools but Spanish was not, so the French-learning pupil had a bit more French behind her than the Spanish learners had Spanish.  All three students were learning only the one foreign language and they had the luxury of 4 x 40-minute lessons per week.  I gave them 25 minutes to write the piece, in class, without notes, exercise books or dictionaries.  They knew who they were writing to and why, and a couple of days earlier I had shown them an example on the screen of what a previous student had done before, just to give them some ideas, but they didn’t have their own copies.  On the day that they wrote the piece, I only gave them the title and then it was over to them to see what they could do.  All three were taught in mixed-ability class.

Click here to see a pdf of what they produced:  Writing Assessment – examples

If you follow this series of blog posts through, you’ll spot where the students picked up some of the expressions, grammar and vocabulary as we went along.  What I find particularly interesting is that very little of it is picked up from worksheets and exercises.  Almost all of it is through interaction and activities where there is an element of guessing, arguing, contradicting, catching out or competition.  Yes, they needed visual support, and yes, they needed to see the language written down.  Yes, spelling and homophones were issues to be tackled (especially in French where, like English, spelling and pronunciation have a bit of an awkward relationship), but I have been happy enough with the results year after year not to jump to the conclusion that in order to improve writing skills what my pupils most need is to ‘do more writing’.  It’s worth saying at this point that although the class encountered the new language through interactive, speaking activities, one of the things I needed to give particular thought to was how to get it into their books.  There is a potential danger (reasonably easily avoided) that at the end of a unit there is not that much in their books and then it is difficult for them to revise both before the assessment or at the end of a year.  We’ll look at that as we go along.

So, if this is what I want them to be able to do by the end of the unit, what language do I need to teach them?  In terms of vocabulary: parts of the body, fruit and vegetables, food and drink, activities and sports, illness.  Grammar: Present tense, imperfect and perfect tenses (they were already good with the perfect tense, the imperfect – and the difference between it and the perfect tense – was new to them in this unit), adverbs of frequency and time-markers.  I also wanted to give them some opportunities to interact with written texts at word level, sentence level and text level.

In the next post, we’ll begin to have a look at the activities I chose to help me get these concepts and vocabulary items across.

The Target Language Classroom

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