Teaching Writing Using Comparisons

16 Nov 2018

“Thought the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by delight in the best works of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence”. Steven Pinker ‘The Sense of Style’

Over half-term I had planned to read ‘Learned Optimism’ by Martin Seligman and Steven Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style: The Thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century’. Between you and me, I didn’t get very far with ‘Learned Optimism’. The first chapter involved doing a gigantic questionnaire to deduce my “current state of optimism”.  This took what seemed like an inordinate length of time, with an epic multiple choice process. It turns out, after a good hour or so of endeavour and soul searching, that I am a miserable pessimist. Mr Seligman informed me that in all aspects of my life I have a remarkably pessimistic outlook and I am more likely to become depressed, anxious, unhealthy and die early.

How cheering for the spirit and soul.

I have to admit that I took this rather lightly – and fear not, I haven’t since wallowed in my self-evident despair. In fact, in true pessimistic style, I abandoned the book in a Scrooge style refutation. Who needs optimism anyway: “Bah Humbug”. It did make me think, however, about my teaching. I think it is safe to say that I am rather pessimistic about my own classroom practice. I pick away rather obsessively at how I am teaching, what I am teaching and the offering I am providing for my students. One reason for searching out Mr Seligman’s optimism (and shelling out seventeen pounds!) is that this year I seem to be feeling this even more keenly, for various reasons.

But as this post is in looking at the merits of comparison in writing (I will get there, stick with me), looking at the alternative to my classroom pessimism is rather helpful. If I genuinely believed I was the incarnate of teaching wisdom, with my classes absorbing my outstanding lessons and becoming the finest students of English to grace any classroom – what would I feel? Perhaps the reality would be stagnation, a teaching plateau –  even, dare I say it – teacher boredom. On this topic, one of my favourite education quotations is from Alex Quigley’s ‘The Confident Teacher‘:

“One of the lessons that emerge from my professional experience with colleagues is that many of the best teachers are bursting with brilliance, but they can easily struggle with a seemingly shallow well of self-confidence. Like Bertrand Russell stated, they are full of doubts, about themselves and their ability to teacher well.” ‘The Confident Teacher’ pg 14

What a nourishing and helpful way to approach self-doubt and pessimism, taking away the mystique that we are all brimming with optimism and confidence.

Anyway, I will confess to being perhaps most pessimistic about my ability to teach writing well in the classroom. My Literature degree doesn’t seem to provide the answers to how to deconstruct it and try to break down the various barriers young people feel about it. What frustrates me is that often my students don’t seem to get better, unless they have a natural flair for writing and read regularly. I am far too aware that I often set writing tasks, hoping that by some magical osmosis the students get better merely through writing more. The reality is, of course, that they don’t. They need explicitly guided through the writing process.

Steven Pinker’s book ‘The Sense of Style’ is fantastic CPD for any English teacher in this regard – breaking down all aspects of the writing process (and it is a tenner cheaper than Mr Seligman’s!)  What I found particularly interesting is that Pinker often structures his points in the book through using comparisons: “Look at the stuffy passages on the left, which are filled with abstract nouns, and compare them with the more direct examples on the right.” Using such a structure makes the challenging and complex task of elucidating what makes effective writing so clear, simple and powerful. Exactly what adolescents, particularly those who may not be devouring books at the rate we might need them to in order to have repeated exposure to good writing, need.

The first chapter of the book is also a fascinating deconstruction of a range of writing extracts, with the aim to “developing a writerly ear.” What a brilliant phrase, and surely what we want our young people to develop. We want them to recognise what makes effective writing and be able to apply it themselves. Another key teaching point from that opening chapter is this: “thought the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by delight in the best works of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence”. The comparative approach: examining writing side by side – is one way to highlight what the “masters” do different when they write.

I am teaching Year 9 creative writing this half term, and this comparative approach, alongside of repeated exposure to excellence in writing, is what I am going to focus on for the term. I want to spend lots of time looking at different examples of writing and getting them to understand the nuances of what makes one example more effective than the other. This will hopefully help them to think more carefully about how they approach their own writing tasks. The slow and deliberate thinking that needs to go into effective writing is often completely alien for our students, how often are we presented with incoherent and rushed pieces of creative writing – haphazard and full of errors?

So, my first attempt at this was using aspects of this excellent post from Eleanor Mears on guided writing. This uses an image with some prompts to help students approach a writing task. We looked first at ‘Five Minutes in a City at Night’ using this image and some of the prompts that Eleanor provides in her post:

You have stepped into an empty street. It is the dead of night and you are alone. What buildings can you see? Are they small houses or city buildings? Can you see any street lamps?

They had five minutes to write their initial versions, trying to describe in detail. I then had these two examples I had written on an A3 piece of paper for them to annotate and compare:

1. It is the dead of night. I am alone, with only the quiet of the empty street around me. I look around me, there is a surrounding blackness. The city has stopped completely, everyone has gone.
2. Black shadows surround me from every angle, one dances beside the dim lamp shade. I pause, soaking in the eerie silence. The sound of the breeze is the only comfort in my isolation: the city is asleep.

In pairs they had to rate each out of five and annotate them according to how effective they were. This led to a long class conversation in which we looked at what was effective about each and how they could be improved. We discussed what make example two more effective: the variation in sentence openings; the increased subtlety; the way punctuation is used to build to the revelation at the end. We looked at how techniques like personification can be woven in to writing, to capture more evocative imagery. I plan to repeat such conversations often throughout the term, allowing them to gradually take more of a lead and tracking how their awareness of how subtlety in writing develops.

They then upgraded and improved their first attempts, redrafting them and trying to improve their initial sentences. We talked about this representing authentic writing: taking time to craft, improve and develop. I often feel like I am rushing teaching writing, and plan to do much more of this process: write initial attempt, comparison of examples/discussion/then repeat and improve throughout the term.

They then compared the responses they had on their table, giving each other similar feedback in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Obviously this requires some sensitivity and training on how to balance positive and negative feedback, but I think it is important they can recognise the strengths and weaknesses of each others’ work. They then nominated one example per table: we shared them with each table feeding back on why they were chosen. Finally we decided which response was the strongest in the class and spend time talking about why it merited such a lofty accolade.

All very simple (and not requiring a huge amount of planning in advance, but hopefully starting to get them to think in more detail about the reality of what makes more effective writing. Some other ways I will be using this as the term goes on:

  1. Vocabulary focus: looking at how vocabulary can enrich and develop sentences. We will look at the same sentence and compare how word choice has been used differently.
  2. Sentence starters: Most of my students suffer from that shocking and ubiquitous condition of ‘Iallitus’ – starting all their sentences with the pronoun ‘I’. Comparative sentence openings will hopefully make this clear to them how much more interesting they can make their sentences and how it can transform writing from dull repetition to engaging for readers.
  3. Continuing short stories: With this group we are now working through ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, reading it and at different points the students become agents of the story. They have to continue writing it in the same style, taking the story on their own journey. We will then compare/contrast how the students have tried to develop the story against Dahl’s – hopefully this will help them to understand story coherence and how to keep readers interested. I have written about ways in which I have used this brilliant short story here. 
  4. Punctuation: To encourage students to experiment with sentence construction and punctuation, we will look at comparing sentences and their construction. We will look at how a sentence is enlivened by punctuation in lots of detail.
  5. Story planning: I plan to do lots of planning with different titles, the eventual task this class will face in GCSE. By deconstructing different plans and ideas, they can again start to see what will be the rudiments for an effective piece.

So, to return to the comparison of teacher mindsets. I think I would rather work with a collection of teachers who are more prone to being somewhat passionately pessimistic about their offering for young people in the classroom. That doubt and inquisitive desire to improve then needs to be channeled into the desire to develop what do in the classroom. One of the best things I read this week, was this Tweet from @HeyMissSmith:

“Teaching is a job where one minute you feel like the best teacher in the world and the next like you have no idea what you are doing. The secret is riding these waves.”

Time to use the occasional waves of pessimism we all can feel somewhat overwhelmed by, to improve our classroom offering for young people. Thanks for reading, I’m off to write some very pessimistic reports for Year 11.





Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: