Caring About Every Writer – the weaker ones need us most

Without a doubt the greatest discovery I’ve made in the last year or two is that feedback through the marking of written work is the most effective teaching tool I have. The connections that I’ve made with students, their awareness that I was both interested in everything they write and on top of their sloppiness, has transformed my ability to ‘know’ the students who walk into my classroom. However, when it comes to the weaker students, the less able in a system that still sets by ability, then it becomes slightly more challenging. They are bringing a tremendous amount of baggage with them.

When you have classes of over twenty five – many of whom have support needs, many have extreme behavioural issues, many have both – then attempting to improve their writing can be a minefield. They know their writing looks terrible because they see the evidence every single day of their school lives, probably in every lesson. So how do we reverse that? What has become clear to me is that this class needs their writing back immediately, the next day whenever possible and they need to work on redrafting the very next day too. Not only is it vital to show them that you care about their work but that ensuring that they can see that improvement is possible, and quickly, is essential if you are to win them back to writing.

Seeing their work completely corrected and ready for redraft helps to develop the habits that the better writers have in that they know that avoiding too many errors means less correction later on. And a quickly redrafted short piece of work can be extremely powerful to them. I use a great strategy from Alex Quigley’s book when I’m marking a short piece, usually just a paragraph, and handwriting is an issue. I completely rewrite the piece, leaving a line between each one I write. I spend the time to do this for a whole class. On return they have to copy the words underneath, ensuring they copy the shapes of my letters. They hate it at first but, with persistence, they begin to see the relevance.

Without a doubt marking the work of this class more than any other – they are often used to less – has overcome behavioural problems. Insistence on high standards of work every time without fail has removed the excuses for not understanding. Clear instructions, an overload of help and assistance and real evidence when they see their writing improving has turned many of them back on to English. Success breeds a desire for more success. Weaker writers carry so much negative experience with them that it is criminal to watch them continue to fail. I’d rather spend more of my time on their work than to think of them as illiterate adults. And that’s what happens if we don’t do enough.

Better teachers and better bloggers than me have described marking as an act of love. Showing them that we care about what they are writing and that we want them to be better is a great motivator. But it is easy to do that for kids who are already reasonably proficient. It is the ones who are the most trouble whom we need to care about most. Even when they fight us, even when they give up, we must never give up on them. They often feel enough like failures.

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