Teaching writing backwards

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Over the last couple of years, I have had cause to work with English teachers and to read some of the literature on English teaching. I have become convinced that writing is mostly taught backwards.

Typically, students are asked to write something. Once they have written it, they hand it in to a teacher to mark. This eats teacher time because there are so many things to comment upon in the piece of writing. Teachers have discussions about how to handle this. They may create a coding system for spelling and grammar and restrict comments to other features of the piece. Nevertheless, it is still unmanageable and virtually all of these comments are never fully understood by the students. Partly, this is because the comments themselves are unhelpful and vague; the equivalent of telling a sprinter that, in order to improve, she must try to run faster. Partly, this is because written comments are a poor way of teaching. Interactive explanations are far better because the teacher can ask questions to check understanding and can pick up on subtle cues from the facial expressions of students. If it was easy to learn from written comments then we could replace schools with books (I now have visions of a 15th century Tedde Talke where some guru explains that schools will soon be replaced by printed material).

So typically, we ask students to do something that we haven’t taught them how to do and then, when they fail to do it, we spend hours writing to them about this. Which is all backwards.

Instead, it might be better to teach a skill first, to all of the students, in class. Students can then practise the skill. Once we are sure that they can do the skill in isolation, we can ask them to demonstrate it in a more complex task where they need to synthesise a number of skills, again focusing on the application of the one we have taught them. Once we have had a look at their responses, rather than writing to our students, we could use what we have learnt to design a plan for a new lesson where we correct misconceptions or further develop the skill. This would be teaching writing forwards.

That would seem sensible, right?

So why don’t we do this? The answer is that most people know good writing when they see it but few of us have spent time analysing it in order to break it down into component skills. So we don’t really know where to start. Instead, we ask students to write and then sort-of see what happens; the backwards approach.

If you are interested in teaching writing forwards then I can recommend “The Writing Revolution” by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler. Alternatively, you can check out the Direct Instruction “Expressive Writing” courses. I am sure there are other approaches out there but these are the two I know. You can adopt one of these models wholesale, adapt it or draw on its principles to develop your own approach. If you are currently teaching writing backwards then this may be the best thing you ever do.


25 thoughts on “Teaching writing backwards

  1. “15th century Tedde Talke” – I love it!

    Seriously though, I think this is essentially the problem that Genre Theory was supposed to solve, except that it was focused too much on the overall structure (and the various “hacks”) rather than the important details – grammar, sentence structure, punctuation etc.

    • Alex Brown says:

      Agreed. Students need to understand subject/predicate, the verb ‘to be’ and start building from the subject and verb upwards, rather than the text ‘type’ downwards, if text ‘types’ exist at all.

      • Agree with you both – have been talking about writing about reducing genres (and in Year 1 eliminating them altogether). Even the ones that are taught it needs to be kept simple with consistent scaffolding (constant changes in layout just make it confusing when they come to it again) and it needs to be modelled away.

        I don’t want to go completely away from them because the models I’ve seen that say they do this don’t really, they just don’t teach the features or model writing (“let the children be free” is the usual motto).

  2. Tempe says:

    And I’d suggest that good writing comes from hearing good writing and reading good writing (increases vocab. and it kinda seeps into the consciousness) which is why there should be far more quality lit. in both primary & secondary.

    • I agree, but it’s not just quality literature that’s important. The techniques, styles and vocabulary used to write fiction are significantly different from those used to write academic essays. Formerly, children had lots of exposure to the academic essay style through regular reading of textbooks, which is one reason why the fashion for abandoning textbooks has been disastrous. If we want children to write well in a non-fiction mode, then we need them to become familiar with it through regular reading of material that provides a model of that mode.

      • Thanks, Greg. It’s the product of several sources: I remember how struck I was when reading about a high school principal in the U.S. asking his brother-in-law (an academic) what would improve the writing of students in his school, and being startled by the simplicity of the answer: they need to read what they are expected to write. I’ve watched this happen with my daughter during her psychology degree, as her writing style gradually improved as she read more and more journal articles.

        The majority of children won’t read non-fiction voluntarily. I certainly didn’t. Yet I went into high school already able to write well in essay style (this was a long time ago). I puzzled over this for a while, until it dawned on me that I had been reading textbooks for the previous three years. Of course, I’m talking about old-fashioned textbooks, with discursive chapters and lots of text, not the modern type with snippets and captions everywhere.

        That said, I still think there should be explicit ‘backwards’ type teaching of writing of the kind you describe, because I don’t think everyone can pick up a style just from reading it, and even for those who can, having a clear analytical mental framework of how academic writing is structured is still useful. But I do think opportunities to read it would help.

        For anyone reading this who is interested, the best sources I’ve found for understanding the structure and tropes of academic writing are books produced under the rubric of ‘academic writing for non-English speakers’, which lay it all out very explicitly.

      • Tempe says:

        Reading textbooks (if only they were better) would be wonderful too. It actually surprises me how little my daughter is asked to use her textbooks. Instead she conducts experiments in science (having no idea what it’s all about) and uses Google to find out info. that is/or should be in the textbook.

        The vocab. for each subject is specific and should be taught. When she Googles it very often takes a long time for her to find what she’s looking for and then it’s often wrong. It frustrates her & me. If they want her to know it perhaps they could start by telling her what they’d like her to know.

        I love you idea about reading textbooks to improve writing. In fact I told my daughter to start bringing home her Science textbook so she can get better acquainted with the vocab. & knowledge. She has no idea how to write an academic essay or even answer a question in this way though she is a high level English student.

      • David says:

        The idea of reading non-fiction is a great one: great fiction, when it used to be in curriculums allowed one access to the minds of great writers with great imaginations (creativity, as we say today), similarly, having set reading of essays by great essayists; both modern and ancient would be an enlarging experience for most.

  3. Felicity says:

    This is vital. We have to build in time for this and not leave it as an afterthought to be squeezed in after we’ve ‘taught’ a text.

  4. Pingback: What *does* improve children’s writing? | David Didau: The Learning Spy

  5. David F says:

    There’s some recent research/conversations on the importance of second language instruction for students—I think this applies to English writing as well, as students are forced to think about parts of speech and grammar rules in the second language and then apply to their English writing. There’s a great little book we use in my school entitled “English Grammar for Students of Latin” by Norma Goldman, which is good even for students not taking Latin to learn English grammar…

  6. Hi Greg,

    I read this post with interest but also with more than a little bemusement.

    I’ve been an English teachers for eighteen years now and I agree that getting students to write without first instructing, showing and modelling the expectations rarely gets good results unless your students are competent in the first place (even then sometimes at the end of the process you describe, there can be lots of work to do). I also agree that writing lots of empty feedback on essays rarely gets understood and is less than useful. However, I haven’t seen the approach to writing that you describe since about 2007 in any of the departments I’ve worked in.

    With all the work that’s been done in the past decade on direct instruction, modelling, showing examples of good writing, I’m surprised that some teachers would still be doing the opposite and teaching writing backwards.

    Perhaps I’m taking it too personally, being an English teacher myself, but I think there are a few assumptions here, too and the post seems a little unfairly critical of English teachers. There is a sense that it’s entirely the responsibility of the English teacher to promote good writing but in my experience English teachers are seen battling against other subjects where writing is an important factor but who don’t take things like spelling, punctuation and grammar as seriously as they perhaps should. Furthermore, the approach to writing whole pieces too early actually happens in science and DT and history etc. I’ve seen it happen.

    I would argue that, in my experience of having watched probably hundreds of lessons, writing tasks in the full are some of the last tasks undertaken in the process of learning. What I have seen in the last ten years is much more time spent on the material (poems, subjects etc.) and then the writing task broken down into parts such as breaking down the question, looking at previous feedback and planning and writing paragraphs and topic sentences. Lately, I have seen excellent modelling and mentor sentence approaches to act as a crucial way of doing what you describe in terms of instructing and questioning. The idea that this isn’t happening already strikes me as bizarre; I see it almost every day.

    However, it’s not always a bad thing to get them to write before you have ‘taught’ them. In Secondary schools, the new class I take on in August will have been taught these skills over quite a few years. My Year 13 class has been essay writing for six years in the subject. What I like to do is to set a writing task to see what my new students can and can’t do. I purposely don’t want to instruct them yet. I use this to be able to help plan my approach to the writing tasks that they need to complete. Another related issue can be that teaching writing in such a structured way can cause its own problems. Things like paragraph structuring can – I think – limit students in finding their own creativity and voice. It may sound a bit woolly but it’s really important that students eventually get to express themselves fully as opposed to fitting their writing neatly in a PEE paragraph or whatever. There is always a fine balance to achieve.

    Thanks for the book recommendation, I will look it up. I’m interested in the latest news about what helps to improve writing and I’m always looking at ways of getting better writing out of students because no matter what my non-English teacher colleagues might argue from time-to-time, it is a central skill for all our students.

    Not only that, there is a strand of the argument that assumes that there is a particular ‘type’ of writing. The real problem of writing is that there are so many ways to write and that writing is never truly finished or perfect. Teaching poetry writing is just fundamentally different from teaching how to write an essay about poetry. The multiple approaches to writing and success in writing must surely mean that one needs to be flexible in approach.

    Additionally, I’m not sure that it’s fair to state so boldly that written feedback is a ‘poor’ way to teach. Surely this is highly dependent on a number of factors. I agree that some forms of written feedback can be less than useful but sometimes I’ve found verbal feedback to be equally shaky grounds on which to base learning. For years now we have been looking at ways of making feedback work for students and if I look at the progress in essay writing over a year, I can see vast improvement. I do use written feedback.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on this.


    • Felicity says:

      Explicit instruction hasn’t – yet – taken off in the same way in Australia as it has in England. I think this post might be addressing the local context.

    • If there’s one thing I’ve learned from many years now of reading thousands of blogs, tweets and comments by teachers, it’s that schools vary widely in their approaches in a lot of areas, and that with 3,300 secondary schools in England, and around 18,000 primary schools, no one is in a position to generalise from their personal experience about what is happening in them.

      It’s also important to remember that, in England at least, external tutoring is rife, along with coaching by parents. This unfortunately can make it difficult for teachers to reliably evaluate how successful the methods they use in the classroom are, and how much is down to input outside of school. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen parents say they had to teach their children how to write an academic essay themselves.

  7. jen says:

    I posted this over at Learningspy as well. I strongly recommend reading the entire book but found a link to a 3 page article that gives a good preview. The book: The War against Grammar by David Mulroy. He is a Stanford PhD and Professor Emeritus of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. The article is here:

    Click to access the-war-against-grammar.pdf

  8. Jen says:

    I would venture to say that in all subject areas, many people consider the basics to be boring and tedious. Then, when we must wait for the slowest in the class to catch on, it becomes even more tedious for the quick learners. And, it is probably true that the teachers in the lower levels didn’t “get to” the more creative/fun/engaging application because there is only so much class time. So the “progressives” decided to skip the tedium and jump to the “more interesting” stuff. And the thought is that those on the lower end would never have gotten to the “good stuff” and so they would have been “disadvantaged” by this.

    I love the quote from Crantor (member of Plato’s academy)…”no one could be initiated into the Greater Mysteries before the Lesser Mysteries.” And so the good intentions backfire because they don’t have the foundation, the background knowledge/skills to be successful. In my mind this makes a strong case for a trivium approach. The early years should be all about the basics and they shouldn’t try to skip over them. Then the middles and upper years could continue to build on a firm foundation. As the students move along the continuum of novice-expert there would be less direct instruction and memorization. Both approaches have an appropriate time and place for their use.

  9. Yep totally agree. There’s really no use in spending so much lesson time on topics like journalistic writing and persuasion, if the children in question haven’t secured full stops and capitals. Practise the skill in isolation before using in specific genres… and then repeat practise again and again.

  10. Amanda L. Bruce says:

    Just found your post. Teaching writing forward should be in the curriculum for teacher-training, but it seems most teachers I knew either stumbled upon it on their own, or just keep teaching things the way they themselves were taught.

    I think some of that is most English teachers focus first on the teaching of literature and second on writing.

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  12. Pingback: What *does* improve children’s writing? – David Didau

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