Practice, Practice, Practice

Writing is extolled, worried over, cited as a national priority, but seldom practiced. The problem with writing is not poor spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting. The problem with writing is no writing.  Donald Graves,1978.

One of the assumptions implicit in the questions and answers we started this section with (Essays/Reports?) is that students will get better at doing a task - writing an essay, for example - if they do the same task over and over again - write lots of essays. This is certainly a powerful idea. Learners need the chance to get good at what they are being asked to do, so the more opportunities to practice writing the better….

The problem is, of course, that where writing is so heavily linked to assessment and where it is not seen as a resource for developing thought, nor as a tool in the learning process - and it must be said, where student numbers seem unmanageably high -  writing tends to be practiced very little. 

The trick, then, is to provide opportunities for students to build and practice their capabilities. Ideally they should receive feedback along the way – but this doesn’t have to imply more formal assessment, or that the teacher is the only source of feedback, or that feedback has to be individual to every student!

Some options to do this:  

  • Require a draft before the final submission. Use peer review and self-evaluation to support the process of revision.
  • Design assignments as having more than one stage. Feedback students receive after one stage should help move the student onto the next.
  • Find a form or forms of manageable regular writing that support what you’re trying to achieve in a course (and that your final assessment will test). Make use of a VLE  to require short weekly reviews that  develop reading and ensure coverage. Consider making these a course requirement rather than for marks.
  • Create time and space in the curriculum in which students can simply write. You can support them in doing this with some simple techniques, like setting writing goals. You could use the materials we use on our writing retreats to do this.

A note of caution: Writing is not a general decontextualised skill; it’s a way of giving particular types of shape to ideas and content, for particular kinds of purpose. It follows that if learners are asked to do too many different types of writing task that are unrelated to one another – an editorial last week, an executive summary this, a job application next week -  the variables (who am I am writing to? who am I writing as?, what’s the form here?) may be so diverse, that the chance to develop confidence and fluency in writing may be lost.

And now: Integrating writing