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A primary school teacher from the UK has been visiting us in Ballarat. Let’s call her Jane.

One of the places we always take visitors is Sovereign Hill, a working museum based on Ballarat’s gold rush days. While there, my daughters popped into the school house. The teacher taught them how to hold a quill, dip it in ink and use blotting paper while copying sentences off the board such as, ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ and, ‘manners maketh the man.’ Afterwards, we had a discussion about what these anachronistic statements meant. My daughters were particularly intrigued by ‘maketh’.

Over a coffee or two, Jane and I had a chat about teaching writing in the UK today and specifically the point at which children are first asked to write sentences.

“The problem is,” explained Jane, “that the kids who really struggle forget their sentence.”

I asked for more of an explanation.

“Well, say the sentence is, ‘The tree is green’. You get them to come up with it and repeat it, maybe as a sing-song, over and over, but when they sit down to write it you say, ‘Now what is the first word that you have to write with a capital letter?’ and they say, ‘It’.”

I drilled a little deeper. Jane was asking children to come up with sentences and then write them down with full stops and capital letters. However, for some children, this appeared to be too much to focus on at once: the mechanics of writing, the conventions of writing, spelling, remembering the sentence.

Clearly, this was leading to cognitive overload for a proportion of students.

With Sovereign Hill in mind, I asked why teachers didn’t begin by simply asking children to copy sentences. That would help practise the mechanics in isolation from the other sources of cognitive load. Perhaps children could then be given sentences without capitals and full stops and they could copy them down and correct them. Maybe this could be the introduction all children are given to sentences or maybe it could be a Tier 2 intervention for those with difficulties.

Jane had two thoughts on this. Firstly, this is what you effectively end up doing with struggling students – the teacher or teaching assistant writes their sentence down for them and they copy it. But this was considered something of a dirty secret and was certainly not part of a systematic approach. Secondly, if anyone senior walked into the room and saw children copying down sentences, the teacher would be in trouble. The idea of students writing sentences they had not generated themselves or worse, copying sentences from the board, was anathema.

A cannot think of a better example of how well-meaning ‘child-centred’ constructivist ideology harms and likely demotivates our most vulnerable children.


9 thoughts on “Sentencing

  1. I enjoyed reading your comments on this conversation! This is exactly what I have struggled with this year, as a first year teacher. I was hesitant to have them copy as we use Sounds~Write and effectively, they had built the words they needed prior to dictation and should be able write them. I focussed my inquiry on this and did a lot of reading about the process of writing and the significantly higher cognitive load required to produce a sentence all on their own. I made tremendous gains in my writing sessions when I realised where I was going wrong, however, I also think that part of the problem is the obsession with getting them writing too much too soon. Why can’t we give them all the tools and then help them construct sentences when they are ready, be this in Level 1 or Level 2?

  2. I have been concerned for a while now that our curriculum expectations (for our youngest students) for writing need a rethink. Composing text and printing it onto paper legibly, is a BIG memory, thinking, fine motor, phonics, printing task for young students. We build reluctant writers early on in schools when we expect too much text too soon. More time needs to be spent explicitly teaching and providing practice time, to develop mechanical and creative skills of writing. The curriculum should direct this teaching more clearly and more logically than it currently does. Too many schools and classrooms expect young children to compose complete ‘genre-recipe texts’ without enough attention to developing printing, composition and sentence skills. Bring on the Writing Revolution 2020- it needs to be following hot on the tail of the Reading Revolution 2020!

  3. Chris says:

    This is certainly an interesting post! I agree that the massive cognitive load placed on children when they are beginning writers makes it very challenging for them to compose an independent text with correct punctuation, correct spelling choices and neat letter formation.
    I am currently teaching in Australia, but spent a good 5 years as a part of senior leadership (specifically as literacy leader) in a school in the UK so I completely understand ‘Jane’s’ perspective too. I believe this has only been amplified by the introduction of the SPAG testing.
    I think we need to consider our focus for the task and then break it up. For example, copying for handwriting practice is perfectly acceptable and reduces the thought processes needed such that the child can only focus on the correct start point, directionality, positioning etc. If the focus is on punctuation, then an appropriate task could be to ‘play teacher’ and correct sentences with errors. If the purpose is to convey a message then the focus needs to be there and spelling, punctuation and handwriting need to take a back seat. Much like the teacher mentioned, children in the earliest stages of writing are asked to write too much, too soon. When I was in the UK, one of my favourite units to teach was ‘captions and labels’. This allowed children the chance to focus on a small number of phonemes and reduced the amount they had to remember. Once they were ready to write more, devices such as ‘talk points’, which recorded short snippets of sound, were used to help children remember what they wanted to say. There are ways, but unfortunately often they are seen as cheating, rather than supporting.

  4. A.G. Hamill says:

    Traditional homeschoolers have entire writing programs which start with copying sentences, speaking original sentences that an adult writes down (narrating), and taking dictation. Susan Wise Bauer (author of one of the aforementioned writing programs) breaks down the writing process into two component parts:

    1) Putting an idea into words.
    2) Putting those words down on paper.

    Students practice #1 with narrating. #2 is covered copying sentences and dictation. These 3 skills are practiced for years before students are required to write paragraphs and essays. They have had a chance to hone their thinking and strengthen their hand muscles before being asked for pages and pages of output.

    Can you imagine what would happen to writing instruction in the English-speaking world, if classroom teachers were allowed to use Ms. Bauer’s program or any of the myriad of others based on the same principles?

    • raja5431 says:

      Yes, this is true. One of the homeschooling traditions is that of Charlotte Mason, a teacher from about a hundred years ago.

      She promoted copy work and narration as outlined above, and advised parents to read aloud “living books”, written by an author passionate about a subject, rather than mass produced “twaddle”:

  5. Tunya Audain says:

    I am enjoying re-reading “Quackery in the Public Schools” by Albert Lynd, written some 70 years ago. Lynd bemoans the “hocus-pocus” rampant in education as new pedagogies were being introduced in the 50s. He disapproved of the teachers colleges for producing esoteric courses and the production of dubious PhD theses — unrelated to the practical needs of students — example: “Games Preferences of 10,000 Fourth Grade Children”. When one thinks of PhD work one would hope that there would be some practical application gained from all the time, energy and expense invested.

    Greg, who we know is currently doing his PhD and investigating the topic of “cognitive load theory”, has just posted another great column on his insights and is certainly making a contribution already. Looking up this field of studies we see that a Professor, Dylan Wiliam, has concluded that “Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know.” Great for the readers of this blog to be gaining reassurances that academic research has demonstrable purpose!

    Impressed to see the way the blog is organized — that the sidebar has suggested further readings on topic. Again, practical. Also the link to Intervention approaches in the body of the post is very helpful.

    Of course, undoubtedly, Greg too might be benefitting from the exchanges from readers that might add to his own growth in knowledge. Teachers at the front line have their say. And parents and grandparents like myself are encouraged that the occupation of teaching is being solidly supported by good research and committed practitioners.

    In the short and long run I hope Greg gets his Doctor designation soon and we keep getting some easily digested accounts of the promise of this research. At the same time, as long as we keep getting posts of this nature along the way, students and education are benefitting from the evidence on cognitive approaches. Heaven help us — we need more cognitive push as the “inquiry” drive is gaining like wildfire, in my neck of the woods anyway (BC, Canada)!

  6. Josh says:

    Hi Greg,

    “The teacher taught them how to hold a quill, dip it in ink and use blotting paper while copying sentences off the board such as, ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ and, ‘manners maketh the man.”

    Life is full of coincidences. I’ve run into this concept twice in the last week, and the week before that I knew nothing about it.

    I just read the famous poem last week by Ruyard Kipling entitlted “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, and I had to go look up what a “copybook heading” was to figure out the poem.

    Now here you are explaining why they would use copybooks, and my professional curiousity is now satisfied.

    Highly recommend the poem if you get the chance to look it up.



  7. John Walker says:

    I love this post, Greg, and I think what Yarni has had to say is most interesting.
    For us, at Sounds-Write, learning to read and write go hand in hand from the start: children build simple, three-sound words that are already in their spoken vocabularies (cognitive load reduction – CLR). They move on to writing very simple sentences through the medium of dictation and any words containing sound-spelling correspondences that have not yet been taught, such as ‘I’ and ‘the” are written on the board for the children to copy (CLR). The sentence to be dictated is first read to the children and meaning is fully established (CLR). The teacher will always remind the children (and keep on reminding them) that we always start a sentence with a capital letter, which again, will be modelled if necessary and this ‘idea’ will be linked to the fact that the children spell their names with capital letters (CLR). They will also be reminded that sentences always end with a full stop.
    When the children are reading simple, decodable readers that follow the order in which sound-spelling correspondences are being taught, there will be a ‘lag’ of a week or two so that children have had time to absorb the new knowledge and then reinforce it by practising it in the broader context of reading in text.
    The dictation shouldn’t happen until the children have had the opportunity for even more overlearning than with reading. This is because retrieval (memory) is very much harder than recognition (memory). So, the lag would be several weeks.
    However, in this way, children in UK nursery and Reception (PP, Kinder, in Australia) are already writing sentences within weeks of starting to learn to read and write. All of this is conducted in whole classes and feedback is given immediately. The process is so highly scaffolded that by the time the children have been learning for roughly twelve to fifteen weeks, they are writing all sorts of sentences and paragraphs for themselves, with, I might add, amazing ingenuity in spelling sounds in words they have not yet been taught. Misspellings that have not yet been taught are left as they are. Only spellings that have been taught are misspelt are corrected and then as soon as possible.
    Everything is taught from simple to more complex and teachers are taught to understand the importance of recycling (which is also what dictation is), the difference between recognition and recall memory, and how much practice all children need before they are able to reach mastery levels.

  8. Pingback: Weekly roundup of favorite posts | Catherine & Katharine

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